Hooray for Giraffedata!

There are few things more heartening than reading of a lone, heroic struggle against the forces of darkness. So we at Copylab were delighted to learn of Giraffedata, aka Bryan Henderson, a crusader against ugly prose on Wikipedia.


A giraffe, yesterday


Giraffedata wages his war on a narrow front: the use of that loathsome phrase “comprised of”. Since 2008, he’s cut out some 47,000 instances from Wikipedia articles.

There has been a backlash, we hear: some Wikipedians object to Giraffedata’s crusade as “pedantry” and say that the phrase is accepted by several authorities as grammatically correct.

Well, we at Copylab commend Mr Henderson’s efforts. His extended essay on the ills of “comprised of” is well worth a read. We often do battle against the phrase ourselves. This isn’t pedantry. “Comprised of” is a widely used and understood phrase – one that has been in use since at least the 1870s.

Why, then, do we excise it when we encounter it? Well, we take it out because it’s bad writing. The basic meaning of the verb comprise is “include, contain or hold”. So to say – for example – a book is comprised of seven essays is needlessly tortured. The book comprises seven essays, or consists of seven essays, or is composed of seven essays (if we really want the passive). But is comprised of? It’s hopelessly strangled and confused.  If someone were to write “the book is included of seven essays”, we’d put that to the editorial sword too.

Now, grammar is a flexible, living thing. Usage evolves constantly, and standards and style guides struggle to keep up. But it’s pretty clear that people use “is comprised of” because they want an extra shot of pomposity or officiousness – or because they think that more words are better.

There are good objections to Orwell’s famous decree that we should never use the passive voice when we can use the active, but it’s hard to make a case for them here. All considerations of grammatical correctness aside, “comprised of” is needlessly wordy, horribly tangled and painfully stuffy: it reeks of pen-pushing self-importance. Never mind correctness: “is comprised of” is just ugly. There are plenty of other constructions that do the job far better. Giraffedata, we salute you!