Culture

Grammar Obsessive Makes 47,000 Edits To Change Incorrect Phrase On Wikipedia; Turns Out He May Have Been Wrong

He's been at it since 2007.

By day, 51-year old Bryan Henderson works as a software engineer in California. By night, he sits at his computer and edits other people’s grammar on Wikipedia. A lot.

Since 2007, under the username ‘Giraffedata,’ Henderson has made over 47,000 edits to remove the phrase “comprised of” from thousands of articles, and replace it with “composed of”. He even wrote a 6,000 word essay, posted on Wikipedia explaining why he is doing this instead of, you know, living. He’s quite passionate about it.

“The arguments for leaving “comprised of” alone often point out that my edits will not erase the phrase from the language, make people stop using it, or prevent its eventual evolution into undisputed correct English. I agree with all of that, and I don’t see how it makes a difference. Those things have never been goals of mine.

As one who subscribes to the anti-comprised-of doctrine described above, I can tell you it triggers the same “what an idiot” neurons in us as “could of” and “could care less”. If I can spare any readers that discomfort without hurting anyone else, why wouldn’t I?”

The essay, which cites references like DrGrammar.org and Wikipedia’s own Manual of Style, explains how it all started, how he goes about it, and how positively Wikipedia users have reacted. He also addresses several arguments against the project, such as “pointlessness of caring about it”. It reads like the man has spent his whole life defending his case. Imagine how upset he would be to find out that it might have been a big waste of time.

Enter Guardian editor David Shariatmadari.

In an article this morning titled ‘Why Wikipedia’s Grammar Vigilante Is Wrong,’ Shariatmadari, who regularly writes about grammar, dropped quite a lot of sass while succinctly showing how futile Henderson’s eight-year long project has been: “No one wants to be the smart-arse constantly reminding people that it should be ‘fewer’ and not ‘less’. But for software engineer Bryan Henderson, that kind of defeatism just doesn’t cut it.”

Referring to Henderson not by name, but as “the super-pedant,” Shariatmadari systematically goes through each point raised in the essay, and explains why it is just plain wrong. “It’s illogical for a word to mean two opposite things,” Henderson claims. Nope, says Shariatmadari – If you want logic, speak Vulcan. English contains various words that mean their own opposite.” He takes similar issue with the etymological argument: “A word’s origin isn’t a guide to its “authentic” meaning. If it were, a “sycophant” would be a person who liked to show figs.”

He also refutes Henderson’s argument that the phrase is unnecessary because of all the alternatives available: “That’s a bizarre argument and one that could be made against all synonyms or near-synonyms. Should we ditch the word ‘accurate’ because we have the word ‘truthful’? And who is Henderson to decide that it adds nothing?”

After backing himself up with the Oxford English Dictionary definition for good measure, Shariatmadari delivers his final blow: “In my experience, the problem with super-pedants is that they believe their preferences are somehow objectively right. But there is no absolute measure of correctness in language. You can see that in the fact that today’s repeated error often becomes tomorrow’s standard usage.”

Note to self: don’t piss off people who are good with words. Henderson might have his work cut out for him this weekend.

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