Do you cleave to "composed of"?
February 8, 2015 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Is "the ultimate Wikignome" a "hero of our times" or is he a quixotic "grammar vigilante"? History may be on your side. A debate regarding the correctness of "comprised of".
posted by ChuckRamone (90 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is like the climate change "debate," a debate between ignorance and knowledge. The only link anyone needs to read is the third, "Why Wikipedia's grammar vigilante is wrong" by David Shariatmadari, although of course if you enjoy foaming peevery feel free to indulge.

> History may be on your side.

What does that mean? Whose side?
posted by languagehat at 9:11 AM on February 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


I feel as though there must be a word for that thing where people get really fucking mad about how wrong prescriptivists are.
posted by Etrigan at 9:21 AM on February 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


It's the same thing as what makes people get really fucking mad about how wrong climate denialists are—a love of truth combined with a dislike of people making the world worse with their bullshit. It's true that the grammar vigilante isn't making the world worse as much as climate denialists, but the principle is the same. People should let go of their bullshit and get used to the world (including language) as it is.
posted by languagehat at 9:30 AM on February 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


People like this inspire me to boldly split infinitives , and make sure my sentences have prepositions tacked on.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 9:35 AM on February 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


I'm not a native speaker but I am a professional translator, and having made liberal use of 'comprised of', having made this 'error' leaves me oddly satisfied. I am both at the forefront of language change, and an enemy of annoying pedants at the same time!
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:36 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Every Sunday night, before he goes to bed, he tracks down and expunges the 70-80 new instances of “comprised of” that have appeared on Wikipedia in the past 7 days

Somebody really needs to set up a bot to run Monday morning and turn, say, a random 1/3 of his 47,000 edits back to "comprised of". (FWIW that is the approx. ratio of "comprised of" to "composed of" in actual usage, according to a quick google search.)

This would quickly cause the edit war to end all edit wars, and almost certainly set off a chain of events that would end civilization as we know it.

It would totally be worth it . . .
posted by flug at 9:39 AM on February 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't mind semantic shift. I get it, language is, as my good friend the linguist always likes to remind me, "a living thing." But, you know, I think what bothers me is that of the myriad reasons for it sometimes the best explanation is that most people just can't be arsed to learn a common definition. It's frustrating when you have to accommodate other people's laziness.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 9:42 AM on February 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


It's true that the grammar vigilante isn't making the world worse as much as climate denialists, but the principle is the same.

So, you're saying that prescriptivists are as objectively wrong as climate-change denialists. Your position is that people who say that particular words must mean particular things are factually incorrect, because language is more flexible than that.

Further, you are saying that a guy who makes edits on Wikipedia and defends them on Wikipedia -- not one who posts "Actually, you see..." comments on Slate, or one who writes columns for the Guardian about how "ignorant" and "wrong" and "a waste of time" that other dude is -- differs from the Koch brothers or John Boehner in degree more than kind. That he is a villain.

I love language, and I feel passionately about it, but wow. That level of... yeah, I'll say it. That level of hate for this guy is kinda worrisome.
posted by Etrigan at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


I could care less about the correct use of comprised of, but this sort of douche does make me want to go out and needlessly insert them into random Wikipedia articles.

He's the sort of guy whose aim in live is to be the fourth official in a soccer match. I hope nobody was surprised he was a white, middle aged engineer?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:49 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


The solution to the supposed paradox of "descriptivists who condemn prescriptivists" is simply to admit that language "correctness" is comprised of nothing more than the totality of usage decisions made by that language's users. Prescriptivists are entitled to their decisions as much as anyone else. They are even entitled to try to change the behavior of others, insofar as it is their choice to use language in that way (I mean through purely verbal means such as complaint, friendly advice, or what this gentleman is doing). Whether they ultimately succeed is another matter.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 9:50 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just in case, maybe it'd be good to refresh our memories about the bogus language wars around prescriptivism and descriptivism.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:51 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


a love of truth combined with a dislike of people making the world worse with their bullshit

To add to this, sometimes the anger is because the same "proper language" ideology is used to support linguistic discrimination. In this case, I don't think that there is an issue of race, gender, or class--but there so often is.

So, you're saying that prescriptivists are as objectively wrong as climate-change denialists.

As another linguist of my acquaintance likes to say, "prescriptivism and descriptivism are not two sides of the same coin," but yes--very frequently, the arguments that prescriptivists use are based on fundamental misconceptions about language, misconceptions that are as grossly wrong as saying a cold snap disproves global warming.

That level of hate for this guy is kinda worrisome.

It's interesting that you consider a linguist pointing out that it's only a "debate" if you include the uninformed to be "hateful."

But, you know, I think what bothers me is that of the myriad reasons for it sometimes the best explanation is that most people just can't be arsed to learn a common definition.

This is pretty much the history of semantic change right here. You phrased it very negatively--but it is unavoidable and the language(s) you speak is the result of this process occurring over and over again since language evolved. It's a function of how we learn language and is never going to go away.

You undoubtedly participate in this process as well.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:52 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I reached semantic satiation on the words "compose" and "comprise" by about the third paragraph, and am going to go read the comics now.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:52 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, you're saying that prescriptivists are as objectively wrong as climate-change denialists. Your position is that people who say that particular words must mean particular things are factually incorrect, because language is more flexible than that.

Yep, language is much more flexible than that; see for instance the difference in US vs UK colloquial use of "cunt" and "twat". In the US? Gendered insults almost invariably directed at women. In the UK? Largely perceived as gender-neutral when used as insults and more commonly directed at men, and being more or less like an intensified version of "arsehole", "jerk" or "idiot". What words mean is determined by how people use them in speech and writing, and dictionaries and grammar and style manuals can only ever provide a snapshot of how language is used at a particular point in time.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 9:56 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The comprised of (or comprising) versus composed of (more typically consisting of) distinction is vitally important in patent law. As far as I know it's also arbitrary (i.e. it could just as well have gone the other way).
posted by jedicus at 9:58 AM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


I reserve an exception for my normal stance of descriptivism for words people use incorrectly while trying to sound smart. "Comprised of" lands in that category, so this guy is doing the Lord's work.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:59 AM on February 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


That level of hate for this guy is kinda worrisome.

It's interesting that you consider a linguist pointing out that it's only a "debate" if you include the uninformed to be "hateful."


No, I consider a linguist saying that this guy is making the world worse by editing Wikipedia to change "comprised of" to "composed of" (literally, languagehat says that, go read the rest of the comment you clipped my sentence from) to have a worrisome level of hate.
posted by Etrigan at 10:06 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thing is, I know from experience that it's only a matter of time before I use 'comprising' and some pompous arse edits my text and tells me I mean 'comprised of'. Where will you be then, descriptivists? Somehow, not around.
posted by Segundus at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel as though there must be a word for that thing where people get really fucking mad about how wrong prescriptivists are.

Prescriptivists are the ultimate mansplainers. They deserve everything they get
posted by dng at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I did read the comment, but to humor you I read it again--and still don't see the worrisome level of hate that you claim is there. After all, included in that comment is also the statement that he's not making the world worse as much as climate change denialists are; languagehat is obviously pointing out that this is relatively minor.

But yeah, I will agree with languagehat that the ideology that drives this kind of pedantry makes the world worse. Sometimes it makes it worse in small ways, such as when people derail an internet comment thread by criticizing someone's grammar. Sometimes it makes it worse in larger ways, such as when educational programs aimed to help children who speak non-standard dialects become needlessly controversial and are stopped. If that's hateful, then that's a pretty low standard for hateful.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've heard of descriptivists and prescriptivists, but this is the first activist I've seen. We're at an inflection point, between two different versions of the English language, and he's trying to shift it one direction.

I really did not expect this level of distaste for his activities. It's quirky and low impact, extending "logic" and "reasoning" to ridiculous levels. This is tilting at windmills in the finest sense. It is gloriously silly.
I hope nobody was surprised he was a white, middle aged engineer?
This is the worrisome type of profiling that makes this place feel a little unwelcoming. Why not list out his other personal characteristics that fit your stereotypes for this type of activity. For example, he's the son of a bureaucrat and a teacher, he's gay, has a brother, anything there lead to the type of stereotype that should surprise nobody?
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:31 AM on February 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


"So, you're saying that prescriptivists are as objectively wrong as climate-change denialists."

Like climate-change denialists, most prescriptivists believe and strongly assert facts that are objectively false. Like climate-change denialists, they build arguments around history, while getting the history wrong. Like climate-change denialists, they are fundamentally ignorant about the topic, making assertions and arguments while possessing very little knowledge of the topic as an object of study . It's a willful, aggressive ignorance and in these ways it's very much like climate-change denialism.

But, more importantly, like climate-change denialism, prescriptivist peeving is a value-laden ideology that uses power and privilege to materially discriminate against the less privileged.

You want to argue that it's trivial, that it is, at its worst, a relatively harmless manifestation of the defense of cultural capital similar to "your favorite band sucks". But language prescriptivism is intimately involved with the systematic discrimination of the less privileged. For example, people whose native dialects are African American Vernacular English or Appalachian English are actively discriminated against in employment and otherwise.

The way of thinking about language, language usage, and other people that's inherent to prescriptivist peeving is built around some very toxic ideas that most of us never question and which are intimately involved in perpetuating injustice. Obviously the context isn't the same when it's one obnoxious wikipedian policing a bunch of other relatively well-off, educated wikipedians. But the ideas and the habits of thought that he's using in this endeavor are the same ideas and habits of thought involved in the racist and similar stuff.

So, yes, in numerous respects I think the comparison is apt and being fucking angry about it is appropriate.

† Climate-change denialists experience weather, so they think they're authorities on climate. Prescriptivist peevers use language, so they think they're authorities on language.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:31 AM on February 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


I think he makes a good argument for avoiding "comprised of" on Wikipedia, where precision is important. But outside of such contexts the phrase has definitely penetrated the lexicon to a sufficient degree to be acceptable. That being said, I find myself unpersuaded by similar arguments regarding the word "literally," so I am evidently not immune to cognitive dissonance.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 10:33 AM on February 8, 2015


But yeah, I will agree with languagehat that the ideology that drives this kind of pedantry makes the world worse. Sometimes it makes it worse in small ways, such as when people derail an internet comment thread by criticizing someone's grammar. Sometimes it makes it worse in larger ways, such as when educational programs aimed to help children who speak non-standard dialects become needlessly controversial and are stopped.

But this guy -- this WikiGnome who is the subject of this post -- isn't doing those things. He's making small, subtle changes without making a big deal of how dumb those "comprised of" people are. Putting him on a continuum with those people is a needlessly vicious way of saying "This dude needs a better hobby."
posted by Etrigan at 10:34 AM on February 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


uch as when people derail an internet comment thread by criticizing someone's grammar

Or by pedantically making assertions that you're using a word wrong, because the dictionary says it means this! Happens all the time with "misogyny" and MRA douchebags. "But I don't hate women! Now let me tell you about all the terrible things society does to men and why feminism is terrible! Also, tits or GTFO!"
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 10:40 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The three horsemen of engineer's disease:

1) Climate change denialism
2) Rampant and violent misogyny
3) Minor, semantically identical Wikipedia edits
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:44 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


correctyness noty living is a language thing tiresome
posted by thelonius at 10:50 AM on February 8, 2015


I'm not putting him on a continuum with those people; it's a continuum that he's already on due to the fact that he subscribes to, and is acting on, the same ideology that is wielded against less privileged groups.

It would be needlessly vicious to call him names or ascribe negative motivations to him that we have no evidence for. It's not needlessly vicious to point out the truth: that it's the same ideology that is used to justify some ugly social discrimination, that it's based in ignorance, and that the world would be better off without it.

I honestly find your reaction to this to be confusing.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:52 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hit enter too soon:

WikiGnome also isn't the sole person being discussed here. He's quiet about his edits (now), but nevertheless, they've gotten attention, and that's where most of this "debate" is coming from. Some of the frustration here is not at WikiGnome alone, but at the people who think he's some kind of language hero.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2015


see for instance the difference in US vs UK colloquial use of "cunt" and "twat". In the US? Gendered insults almost invariably directed at women. In the UK? Largely perceived as gender-neutral when used as insults and more commonly directed at men, and being more or less like an intensified version of "arsehole", "jerk" or "idiot".

Perceived as gender-neutral, maybe, but it's still a gendered insult no matter which side of the pond you're on. Especially with your point about being an intensifier; what's worse than being called an arsehole? Being called a woman.

See also "that's so gay."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:30 AM on February 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


The word 'comprise' drives me totally bananas. Dear 'comprise': you are wrong! You are a wrong and backward thing and you should get yourself right. Yours etc., LM
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:48 AM on February 8, 2015


You know, I dream of doing this for "amount of" when it should be "number of." Occasionally I search wikipedia for "amount of people" and fix it. But now that I see the vitriol directed at this guy, I guess I won't. Also, I have other stuff to do.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


>This is pretty much the history of semantic change right here. You phrased it very negatively--but it is unavoidable and the language(s) you speak is the result of this process occurring over and over again since language evolved. It's a function of how we learn language and is never going to go away.

You undoubtedly participate in this process as well.


I dunno, semantic shift doesn't solely rely on people's laziness. Also, I'm pretty aware that it's inevitable and that I contribute to it. That doesn't mean that I have to like it, though. I also don't like rush hour traffic, political culture in the USA, and getting the flu. There're lots of things that are bothersome and unavoidable but have to be accepted.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The climate change debate is comprised of many objectively false facts.
posted by Segundus at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Perceived as gender-neutral, maybe, but it's still a gendered insult no matter which side of the pond you're on.

In the UK? Not really, it isn't. The sense is significantly different to US "pussy" as an insult. (See: "Monty, you terrible cunt" in Withnail & I, for instance. Or the UK version of "Dancing With the Stars", which is called "Strictly Come Dancing"...a/k/a "Strictly Cunts Dancing".) It may be a gendered insult in North America; here in the UK it generally isn't. (A terribly offensive comedian called Jimmy Carr got heckled off the stage at a show in London; he did three rape jokes in a row, and a woman in the audience called out "you're a misogynistic cunt".)
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm talking about why it's an insult, which is very obviously gendered.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:05 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


We've had the 'cunt' UK vs US usage discussion here in some depth before, so maybe not worth getting too derailed by it in this thread, since the main point about language differences in different areas can be made using other examples.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I prefer "comprised by".
posted by uosuaq at 12:15 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm talking about why it's an insult, which is very obviously gendered.

And really has nothing at all to do with how the word is commonly used as an insult in colloquial speech in the UK today. (I realise that's not the case in North America, but it only proves my point about the sense and meaning of words changing through use. )
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 12:17 PM on February 8, 2015


It has plenty to do with it--again, see "that's so gay"--but meh, derail, w/e.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2015


Perceived as gender-neutral, maybe, but it's still a gendered insult no matter which side of the pond you're on.

Nope, sorry. They are gender neutral if people use them that way. You don't get to claim that the North American usage is the real meaning and way British people use them is a misperception. Strings of sounds don't have an inherent meaning; they mean what speakers of a language use them to mean, and the same words can mean different things in different dialects.
posted by nangar at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


It has plenty to do with it--again, see "that's so gay"--but meh, derail, w/e.

So it's fair to say you're a prescriptivist, then?
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 12:34 PM on February 8, 2015


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that’s all."
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:39 PM on February 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I got bothered by this a few years ago and tried to sort it out. I found out that it's widely used in two opposite senses, and just decided to turn my back on the whole mess and never use the word. I also tell people "the meeting has been rescheduled to 3 PM", not "the meeting has been moved ahead an hour", for the same reason.
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh my god I HATE "moved forward/back" when it comes to specific times.

So it's fair to say you're a prescriptivist, then?

No. It's fair to say I'm someone who's interested in where words come from. "That's so gay" wouldn't be used as a pejorative if there weren't a significant social attitude that gay = bad, for example.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:56 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


So it's fair to say you're a prescriptivist, then?

Being prescriptivist isn't inherently wrong. It's only wrong when the reasons are wrong--which is, to be fair, true of any prescriptivist argument that boils down to there being an objectively correct, superior version of the language that people are deviating from.

There's this persistent misunderstanding that descriptivism and prescriptivism are opposites, which isn't true; they're orthogonal. Most linguists would be able to give you an example of when a prescriptive statement would be reasonable. I like the example that someone gave on reddit a few days ago: It's better to use flammable instead of inflammable on safety materials because the latter is ambiguous. You could even support this prescription with descriptive study--for example, by doing an experiment that shows that readers find safety materials that use inflammable more confusing.

Another example would be what to do about gender-default (not gender neutral) "he." This became the standard in professional writing and to some people it is more natural, but it has become rightfully criticized because it excludes women. That it's not interpreted gender neutrally is supported with experimental evidence. Arguing that we should use something else is prescriptive, but not wrong.

I suspect that some of the confusion about "descriptivism vs. prescriptivism" is due to sampling bias. Arguments are just more likely to erupt when someone makes a prescriptivist statement that's obviously wrong. I suspect that another reason is how we frame this in introductory courses: linguistics is prescriptive, not prescriptive--something we hammer home because it is very hard to get through to students that we aren't studying "proper" language, which don't real, while not being able to discuss it in depth because we don't have the time and it would undermine what we're trying to do.

I suspect that yet another reason is that "prescriptivist" has become shorthand for precisely those prescriptivist arguments that are wrong, giving it a more narrow meaning, while others think that it means any case where you're telling someone what to do with their language.

Or, perhaps it's as I saw someone else say: It's like eschewing all "prescriptivist" viewpoints is achieving the first level, and then coming to a more nuanced understanding is the next level.

Basically, you can't dismiss an argument about language use simply by labelling it "prescriptive." It's not prescriptivism that's been invalidated by descriptivism; it's specifically those prescriptivist arguments that are based on false claims about grammaticality, logic, language acquisition, history, and so on. Descriptivist language science hasn't invalidated social reasons for changing language.

To get back to "cunt" and "twat", or other offensive language... descriptivism doesn't tell us that these insults are alright. It tells us that they're grammatical and that people aren't using them "wrong". It gives us tools to assess how these terms are understood, and what affect they have--are they truly gender neutral, or not? We could do a study or five. It doesn't tell us that people who object to them as being hurtful and offensive are wrong because they're "prescriptivist."
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:54 PM on February 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


Being prescriptivist isn't inherently wrong. It's only wrong when the reasons are wrong--which is, to be fair, true of any prescriptivist argument that boils down to there being an objectively correct, superior version of the language that people are deviating from.

That was snark, in case you missed it.

Another example would be what to do about gender-default (not gender neutral) "he." This became the standard in professional writing and to some people it is more natural, but it has become rightfully criticized because it excludes women. That it's not interpreted gender neutrally is supported with experimental evidence. Arguing that we should use something else is prescriptive, but not wrong.

Personally I'm a fan of singular "they". I don't get my knickers in a twist when someone uses "he" or "she" instead, though.

It doesn't tell us that people who object to them as being hurtful and offensive are wrong because they're "prescriptivist."

No, in this case it's pretty clearly because they're from a different dialect region where the word has a different meaning. (Which happens; cf. "fanny"; gender neutral term for "backside" in the US, something different in the UK.)
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 2:14 PM on February 8, 2015


I think the phrase "is comprised of" has a useful meaning that is not well comprised1 by any other English expression, particularly when we seek to both describe and define an object, entity, or class that has several chief constituents chosen from a wider field, but not necessarily to the exception of any others.

For example, a chair might be made up by attaching a seat to supports (i.e., legs, or similar), and possibly adding a back and/or arm rests. It would be imprecise to say that it contains these elements (a container contains things); it isn't composed of either "a seat and supports" or "a seat, supports, and a back and/or arm rests." I think the definition would be better expressed as "A chair is comprised of a seat and supports, and may have a back rest and/or arm rests."

1 Comprise: to comprehend or include under or in a class or denomination. [OED]
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:16 PM on February 8, 2015


Well, since the derail is continuing...

No, in this case it's pretty clearly because they're from a different dialect region where the word has a different meaning.

Is 'cunt' somehow not historically referring to a woman's genitals?

Do you not think that maybe, just maybe, it became an insult--as you say, most often applied to men as an intensifier--in exactly the same way that 'sissy' or 'pussy' over here has? Because it's more insulting to a man to be called a woman.

That's why it's a gendered insult, no matter what the intention--it comes from women being seen as inferior.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:23 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


That was snark, in case you missed it.

Well, that's good. I couldn't tell it apart from the garden variety "I will stop you from objecting to offensive language by calling you prescriptivist" that I've encountered elsewhere.

I don't get my knickers in a twist when someone uses "he" or "she" instead, though.

I don't get my knickers in a twist either, but I do argue that "he" is exclusionary and is better avoided. I also argue that it should be called "gender default he" instead of "gender neutral," because people often use the latter terminology to justify continuing its usage, even though we know that it's not actually interpreted gender neutrally by most people. Both of these are prescriptivist arguments, if you define "prescriptivist" broadly.

No, in this case it's pretty clearly because they're from a different dialect region where the word has a different meaning.

Not necessarily.

Our intuitions about a word's connotations aren't always true. The example "gender neutral he" is a good one, here: Many people claim that it's used in a completely gender neutral way, but actual linguistic and experimental evidence strongly suggests that this isn't he case.

We know also from research into the nature of semantic activation that people probably can't completely divorce one meaning from another in a polysemous word; that means that as the negative meaning of "cunt" is activated so too are other meanings, to a lesser degree.

The way that using "cunt" as an insult fits into a larger pattern of using feminizing insults to disparage men is also a good reason to stop and question whether it's actually gender neutral. There are people in the US who insist that "bitch" is a gender neutral term, but this doesn't seem to be how it's used.

I don't actually know what the answer is, but I do know that we can't safely assume it's gender neutral because speakers claim it to be.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


There's probably less disagreement here than meets the eye.
I think there's simply no question that "c*nt" is pretty broadly used and accepted (as a general insult) in the UK, whereas here in the US I can't imagine trying to use it (hence the asterisk).
At the same time, fffm is no doubt right that, while referring to someone as any sort of genitalia -- e.g. "prick" or "dick" -- is an insult, the female versions probably come off as worse insults due to the long and continuing history of misogyny.
So I suggest we move forward with "cloaca". Or at the very least, "Berk".
posted by uosuaq at 2:35 PM on February 8, 2015


So we are having yet another round of the stupid iptivists argument? I did try to preempt it by linking to an article about it above, but oh well, I might as well copypaste the relevant bit here:

The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.

The conventions of written prose represent a similar kind of standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers, and linguists capture their regularities in the “descriptive rules”—that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions has become accepted by a virtual community of literate speakers for use in nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These are “prescriptive rules”—rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Examples include the rules that govern agreement and punctuation as well as fine semantic distinctions between such word pairs as militate and mitigate or credible and credulous. Having such rules is desirable—indeed, indispensable—in many arenas of writing. They lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and credibly signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate.

posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:38 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or at the very least, "Berk"

Berk's just rhyming slang for cunt, though, so it's not that much of an improvement.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:42 PM on February 8, 2015


It at least involves a couple levels of redirection, fffm...
posted by uosuaq at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2015


How did we get to twat and cunt and dick and prick and sissy and pussy and gender-neutral and using feminizing insults to disparage men and rampant and violent misogyny and women being seen as inferior

from a debate over "composed of" vs "comprised of"?

I vote for "composed of" but it's an old, old issue and if there's some pedant working away at grammar and usage and he's annoying others with his hobby, I can see that as a good post for the blue, but why is it almost inevitable that a post will become focused on gender and insults?
posted by aryma at 3:35 PM on February 8, 2015


I recently bought Android: Netrunner and while reading the manual to my girlfriend I felt really weird that the whole thing uses "he" as default when talk about the player. I automatically started using singular they because I didn't like how it made me feel as if I was excluding my girlfriend.
posted by gucci mane at 3:44 PM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


That level of hate for this guy is kinda worrisome

This is hilarious. Ooh, here comes languagehate with his uncontrollably rage! Beware his blind, insane hatred for innocent prescriptivism! Watch him gibbering uncontrollably as the froths drips from his chattering maw! One so addicted to anger is surely not to be trusted!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:57 PM on February 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yes, that's totally what "kinda worrisome" means. You have successfully translated my descriptivistic code.
posted by Etrigan at 4:02 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Languagehate, the demon of malice! The wallower-in-bile! Some say he feeds on the laughter of children, sucking all joy from their tiny bodies before discarding their dessicated corpses - of all Hell's foul abominations, none is more "kinda worrisome" than he!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:10 PM on February 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


This one baffles me. I've never had a problem with the dual use of "comprise," nor have I ever been confused about it. Context always clarifies which meaning you are using. If it doesn't, then there's a lot more wrong with your writing than just the usage of "comprise."
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:28 PM on February 8, 2015


How did we get to twat and cunt and dick and prick and sissy and pussy and gender-neutral and using feminizing insults to disparage men and rampant and violent misogyny and women being seen as inferior from a debate over "composed of" vs "comprised of"?

Because talking dirty is always more fun.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:38 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Poo!

Languagehate is obviously the Star Trek mirror-image of Languagehat. He turns up in threads that mention etymology; and grunts, while making stabbing motions with his fingers. If anyone asks why he just rolls his eyes and leaves.

Also, he has a sinister goatee.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:44 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse: I could care less about [...]
CAREFUL
posted by dfan at 5:11 PM on February 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Some Wikipedia confessions:
  1. I just changed a couple of "composed of"s to "comprised of"s, just to bother that guy.
  2. I once spent about a month gradually inserting references to the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel into articles on random towns that would be over its path; so, for example, I added a bit to the pages for a couple of random midwestern high schools talking about how they have renowned earth sciences programs that take advantage of the school's local access to the burrito tunnel.
  3. I can't for the life of me remember who it was, but I once likewise spent about a month carefully editing pages related to a random minor dictator and a specific make of ultralight airplane, in order to make it look like the dictator was a hobbyist pilot known for his deep enthusiasm for that particular plane.
  4. On and off, I still every so often change the page for Tacoma, Washington to assert that the plural form of the demonym for that city is "Tacomen."
  5. On the whole, despite being a grown-up and everything, I still think the highest and best use of Wikipedia is LARPing Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius on it.
50 quatloos to the first person who figures out what I've been doing to all the pages about Borges...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:29 PM on February 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


I promise he's not judging you, so there's no need to feel offended.

Please don't undo a man's work improving the world just because you can.
posted by amtho at 5:37 PM on February 8, 2015


bryanh is also the maintainer of Netpbm, so is a hero to me. Having corresponded with him in the past, I suspect this is a product of his odd sense of humour.
posted by scruss at 7:12 PM on February 8, 2015


I prefer "comprised by".

"Comprisuendo" in formal contexts, of course.
posted by No-sword at 7:35 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I had read this article earlier because the author e-mailed me about it. I then saw it make the rounds a few places and when it showed up on my RSS feed for MetaFilter I thought, "it will be interesting to see the comments here". In none of the other places where I've seen this discussed was there so much anger, snark, and vituperation. There are no doubt many more online communities which are far more hateful and rude but I don't read any of their comments. There's something about this site that somehow attracts a mix of smart and intelligent feedback, interesting personal anecdote, and the most self-righteous and smug bitterness I've ever seen.
posted by koavf at 7:48 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


a mix of smart and intelligent feedback, interesting personal anecdote, and the most self-righteous and smug bitterness I've ever seen.

So basically we're a really good IPA?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:25 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: a mix smart and--never mind, he actually was describing MetaFilter.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:43 PM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


the most self-righteous and smug bitterness I've ever seen.

Nous sommes languagehate!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:01 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


In none of the other places where I've seen this discussed was there so much anger, snark, and vituperation.

I certainly have, although most of it was directed at people using the language "improperly."
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:36 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I dunno, semantic shift doesn't solely rely on people's laziness.

I missed this in the kerfuffle.

The distinction between semantic shift that happens because of "laziness" and semantic shift that happens for other reasons isn't real, though. Like, what does it even mean to be "lazy" when learning words? No one learns how to speak their first language by doing polls or reading dictionaries; instead, we all learn our first language by analyzing the linguistic input available to us. Often, this input provides evidence for more than one (but often closely related) analysis, and we get shift over time.

Cases where people know one definition, but choose to deliberately use another are so rare as to be a drop in the ocean. It may happen in special cases, like technical language, but it is safe to say that the language you speak is the result of tens of thousands of years of people failing to look up "common definitions." That's just ... kinda how language acquisition works. I have no idea what the "non-lazy" version of it would be.

As to disliking it -- certainly, that's your business and you can dislike it if you want, but it's about as pointless as being irritated at Galapagos finches for having too many different kinds of beaks. Language change, including semantic shift, is just as inevitable and natural as biological evolution.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:56 PM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


The scope of Giraffedata's quest reminds me of Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged, and thus, although I'm rather descriptivist by nature, I can only stand in awe of his dedication.
posted by walrus at 3:31 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


What do you mean? If semantic change were to stop for one reason or other, I'd be out of a job!

Is that what you want, language change denialists?!!
posted by ipsative at 4:58 AM on February 9, 2015


In theory, I support the descriptivist tribe, but in reality, well... when the language wars are over and the cold dead hands of the prescriptivists are cleared from the field, and "loose" and "lose" finally lie down together officially, nevermore to be separated – a part of me will die that day.
posted by taz at 6:14 AM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


Taz, your making a mountain out of a teacup.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:19 AM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


> No, I consider a linguist saying that this guy is making the world worse by editing Wikipedia to change "comprised of" to "composed of" (literally, languagehat says that, go read the rest of the comment you clipped my sentence from) to have a worrisome level of hate.

No, it's your wildly psychologizing overinterpretation of my comments that is worrisome. Get a grip, dude. I don't hate the guy; I don't have any personal feelings about him whatsoever. How could I? I don't know him. And yes, I think he's making the world a little bit worse by trying to enforce a stupid, invented distinction. But of course if this idiotic compulsion is keeping him from annoying people in more annoying ways, I'm happy to have him waste his time at it.

> I think he makes a good argument for avoiding "comprised of" on Wikipedia, where precision is important.

Said "precision" exists only in your head (and his), not in terms of the actual language. Wikipedia would be no more or less precise if he had never made a single edit.

Or, what Kutsuwamushi has been saying so patiently and well. Thanks, Kutsuwamushi!
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I reached semantic satiation on the words "compose" and "comprise" by about the third paragraph, and am going to go read the comics now.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:52 AM on February 8 [1 favorite +] [!]


Semantic satiation doesn't seem quite right. When I'm literally satiated, I still recognize food and that it can be delicious (much to my demise), but this phenomenon leads to ill-recognition of the meaning of a word or phrase. It's more like a refractory period during which your "meaning detector" no longer reacts to that stimulus until a period of time has passed. "Semantic refractory state" is more accurate, but clumsy.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:27 AM on February 9, 2015


I don't hate the guy; I don't have any personal feelings about him whatsoever.

You say that he is "making the world worse with [his] bullshit" and call him ignorant and attribute his actions to "foaming peevery." I wonder what your version of indifference must look like.
posted by Etrigan at 9:54 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is MetaFilter, not The Times [of London] circa 1910. I use vigorous language in an effort to make my comments entertaining. If you can't handle it, I suggest you skip my comments. But trying to tell me I don't know my own feelings is pretty fucking high-handed.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on February 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Good point, Mental Wimp. "Satiation" is the recognized term, but it does have the drawbacks you describe. Maybe "saturation" is a better choice, as if my meaning detectors are completely filled, and any additional syllables are just going to sit around with no meaning being extracted from them, like spilled water that you can't pick up with a saturated sponge.

Of course, the problem with "saturation" is that it sounds very similar to "satiation", so some folks will use them indiscriminately and others will be bothered by it and before you know it people are throwing around vigorous language.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:10 PM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of people I think are making the world worse with bullshit who I don't hate. Elton John, as an example.

Oh my God, now, I have Tiny Dancer stuck in my head again.

In summary, I actually think Elton John's parties would be fun, and he seems like a pretty fun guy, but fuck his bullshit.
posted by maxsparber at 12:13 PM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


People should let go of their bullshit and get used to the world (including language) as it is.

Yeah, because googling 'meme' still tells you everything you need to know about quanta of cultural knowledge. literally, bullshit.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:35 PM on February 10, 2015


You want to argue that it's trivial, that it is, at its worst, a relatively harmless manifestation of the defense of cultural capital similar to "your favorite band sucks". But language prescriptivism is intimately involved with the systematic discrimination of the less privileged. For example, people whose native dialects are African American Vernacular English or Appalachian English are actively discriminated against in employment and otherwise.

I feel that militant descriptivism is basically like the person who not just insists on reminding everyone that a tomato is a fruit but then gets annoyed that no one wants to put tomatoes in a fruit cup: you're arguing something that is technically true but something that doesn't actually function in real life.

Like, yes, descriptivism is the academically accurate model of studying and understanding linguistics, but civilization functions because of descriptive rules of language that we make an effort to learn and use in communication.
posted by deanc at 1:10 PM on February 14, 2015


I am absolutely tickled by pointing out that you probably meant 'prescriptivism' there.

(Also I have had tomatoes in a dessert. Delicious.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:34 PM on February 14, 2015


I am absolutely tickled by pointing out that you probably meant 'prescriptivism' there.

No, actually, I meant militant "descriptivism" of the sort that languagehat advocates. The way language works and the way it is studied is descriptively, just like tomato is a fruit and climate change is real and caused by humans. But we live in a world in which human society works because we teach and use language prescriptively and don't put tomatoes in fruit salads.

We'd never get anywhere if our grammar and composition teachers in high school and college were told to "get used to the world (including language) as it is" and stop bothering to teach us how to write correctly.
posted by deanc at 5:13 PM on February 14, 2015


I think you're using "descriptivism" wrongly.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:29 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


"But we live in a world in which human society works because we teach and use language prescriptively..."

No. This is wrong and it's about as wrong as it's possible to be wrong. Congratulations, that's an impressive feat on the internet. Yours is an assertion about reality that's empirically been proven false through all of human history and continues to be proven false every day all over the world.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:43 AM on February 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


But we live in a world in which human society works because we teach and use language prescriptively and don't put tomatoes in fruit salads.

This is a statement made from faith rather than evidence. It simply isn't true that we need prescriptivist language teaching in order for human society to "work"; human society works just fine in the absence of it. We're much more capable of dealing with variation than some language peevers claim ... and when the variation becomes too great, people who need to communicate will find middle ground regardless of whether prescriptivist language teaching is involved or not. Like, it seems as though you think that in the absence of prescriptivist rule enforcement our language will degenerate into chaos and no one will be able to talk to each other anymore, and human society will collapse, but practically the whole of history disagrees with you.

It is also a statement made from a lack of imagination or exposure; you seem to be unaware of the tremendous differences there are between societies' beliefs about language. Not all societies have (or had) the same ideas of "correct" language that Americans do, that French people do, that British people do... this idea you have about "correct" language and its necessity is incredibly culturally bound.

(As a tangent, "tomatoes are a fruit" is true if you're using the biological definition, but if that's the definition you're using, many other things called vegetables in common or culinary usage . You could certainly make a tasty fruit salad, using the biological definition of "fruit," that included tomatoes. But also what does this have to do with anything?)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:59 AM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


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