Perils of a Living Language

Mankind is notorious for abusing other living things, for example, bird eggs with DDT, deforestation, gorillas in zoo cages, toxic waste, paving paradise, radiation, endangering the Quietschbükers, etc. But what about language? Language is a living thing. In fact, people cite the “living” status of language as the very reason it’s OK to abuse it.

I can use any word any way I want to because “language is a living, evolving thing,” instead of a “dead” or static set of rules and definitions. If language were dead, we would have to obey its rules, but because it’s alive, we can have our way with it.

I once witnessed a forum debate on the usage of “comprise” in formal writing, where one person defended strict usage, while an opponent claiming to represent the “common man” chimed in, “Get ready to be overruled by the proletariat!”…as though it’s a noble revolution of the masses to bring slipshod colloquial carelessness into formal publications. Storm the Bastille and raise the flag of sloppy usage—liberate the untutored writers from the scolding school teachers. You get the idea. Instead of the masses abusing spotted owls, bald eagles, and gorillas, they were now turning against a truly endangered species, “Editors.”

An Editor with integrity enforces usage that is supported by most style manuals. Yes, editors “must obey” style manuals (albeit sometimes in-house manuals trump general ones). Style manuals are by and large made for editors, whereas dictionaries are made for everyone. Take the “comprise” controversy—dictionaries say using comprise to mean “compose” is iffy but OK; whereas major style manuals such as the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style still recommend the strict usage of “comprise” (the whole comprises the parts, e.g., “the Union comprises fifty states”).

The “comprise” controversy is one of the oldest and biggest bones of contention between editors and the raging proletariat. Today most careful editors will avoid the controversial (aka sloppy) usage, since it has the potential to look unprofessional. As the Chicago Manual of Style states, “While common usage can excuse many slipshod expressions, the standards of good usage make demands on writers and editors” (5.220, 16th ed., 2010). It goes on to recommend usage more strict than most dictionaries for words like comprise/compose, disinterested/uninterested, ensure/insure, farther/further, infer/imply, and a few hundred others.

Back to comprise—perhaps in five or ten years using comprise as a synonym for “compose” will look fine, and no one will remember the old comprise controversy. After all, language is a living, evolving thing. But for now, stand firm against the abuse of comprise and other crimes of linguistic lassitude. Avoid phrases like “the Union is comprised of fifty states” and be a patriotic editor who insists that “the Union comprises fifty states.” To many writers, editors, and publishers, that distinction remains a shibboleth of integrity.

Contact Form

This entry was posted in Editorial Style, Web Editing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.