This Headline is Comprised of at Least One Mistake

If you don’t see the mistake in the headline above, don’t worry — you’re hardly alone. Highlighting the mistake is pedantic, but, so often is the case with little bits of grammar. But let’s do it anyway. The problem is with the use of the words “comprised of” — it’s wrong. Grammarist explains:

Comprise means to consist of or to be composed of. Compose means to make up the constituent parts of. Parts compose the whole, and the whole comprises the parts. For example, we could say that the United States comprises 50 states and that the 50 states compose the United States.

But comprise is widely used in illogical ways, mainly in phrases such as is comprised of. For example, many people would write that the United States is comprised of 50 states even though they obviously mean compose instead of comprise. This usage is so widespread that trying to stop it is probably a lost cause, and we increasingly have to turn to editorially fastidious publications to find comprise used the old way. Still, careful writers tend to avoid the mixup.

In other words, you shouldn’t ever use the phrase “comprised of.” And there’s no need to take Grammarist’s word for it — the OED agrees, calling the construction “incorrect.”

But Grammarist is correct that “to stop it is probably a lost cause” — emphasis on the word “probably.” Just ask Bryan Henderson.

Henderson is one of the many thousands of volunteers who regularly edit Wikipedia, where he’s known by the username “Giraffedata.” But unlike most Wikipedians, Henderson’s focus is exceptionally narrow. As Backchannel explains, “while some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.” Specifically, Henderson’s self-assigned mission is to remove instances of “comprised of” wherever he can. And because Wikipedia is a world-editable project, that means Henderson can remove the error almost everywhere.

So, Henderson has done just that — editing out the words “comprised of” approximately 50,000 times.

It’s not an entirely manual process. Henderson built a program — a “bot” in Wikipedian parlance — which scours the online encyclopedia in search of the offending phrase. Then, on most Sunday nights (and at various other times), Henderson spends about an hour reviewing the list generated by that bot and makes the necessary edits. Here’s a list of edits he made last night, for example:


The whole process takes about an hour or so — Henderson estimates that the phrase finds its way into articles about 70 or so times each week.

In Henderson’s mind, he’s making Wikipedia — and through it, the world — a better place. On a Wikipedia page about his efforts, he describe the construction “comprised of” as having a few flaws: it’s “completely unnecessary,” “illogical,” “imprecise,” often used “to aggrandize a sentence,” and is a departure from the etymology of the word “comprise.” (Although not everyone agrees.) And, Henderson continues, his endeavor is consistent with the principles that govern Wikipedia:

A Wikipedia article gets its grammar and style the same place it gets its facts: from the editing public. Each editor applies his own judgment in adding material, and in reviewing and modifying existing material. Disputes sometimes develop, and there are procedures for dealing with those. In general, an article ends up reading however the majority of people who care want it to read. Even spelling is crowdsourced on Wikipedia.

For many, that Henderson is so dedicated to this endeavor may seem strange and quixotic. And sure, it is — but it’s a hobby like any other. Is it any weirder than emailing trivia to a list comprised of — er, I mean, composed of — a fairly large number of strangers? You be the judge.


Bonus fact: Despite Henderson’s note above, there are some situations where Wikipedia’s editing community has instituted a style guide. For example, the English-language version of Wikipedia has some pages which use American English, others which use British English, and still others that use another dialect altogether. Which one to use? There are guidelines for that. The general rule? Don’t change a page from one version to another.

From the Archives: The Bicholim Conflict  The war documented in great detail on Wikipedia — except for the fact that the war never happened.

Related: Wikipedia, the board game. It’s comprised of… er, consists of “300 Wiki Theme Cards, 4 Dry Erase Boards, 4 Dry Erase markers, 100 Tokens and a Sand Timer” per the Amazon page.