A great article about grammar rules in the ‘Prospero’ column in The Economist has been generating a heated (and on-going) debate among the copywriting team at Wordsworks Towers recently.

It referred to a story about Bryan Henderson, a US grammar obsessive who has apparently edited almost 50,000 Wikipedia articles to remove the phrase “comprise of”.

Bryan is one of many (us included) who follow the traditional rule that ‘comprise’ should not be used with ‘of’. It’s easy to see why. Comprise means ‘consists of’, so in saying ‘comprise of’ you are in effect saying ‘consists of of’, which is clearly nonsense.

The Oxford English Dictionary would seem to agree with Bryan. It states (on its website) that “the construction comprise of, as in the property comprises of bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, is regarded as incorrect.”

There are many who disagree, however. Language is a fluid, evolving creature that can never be restricted by mere artificial rules, they say. The rules should reflect actual usage, rather than trying to limit usage to what is prescribed in (often antiquated) rules. The fact that nearly 50,000 Wikipedia entries (47,000 to be precise) happily use the phrase ‘comprise of’ (with no detriment to meaning or clarity) clearly indicates that the rule needs changing! So the argument goes.

On the other hand, just because a particular usage is common doesn’t make it correct. Many people seem to say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’, or confuse their, there and they’re. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

The ‘comprise of’ camp has some big name proponents, however. The list of writers who would line up against Bryan includes Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Christopher Hitchens, Lionel Trilling and Alfred North Whitehead (we’ve never heard of these last two either).

What’s more, according to the article, the use of ‘comprised of’ has been steadily increasing since the early 20th century and is almost a fifth as common as the grammatically more correct ‘is composed of’.

‘Comprised of’ also apparently appears 1,880 times in the United States Code (the main body of American federal statutes). Although we’ve never read it through to the end, so can’t verify the claim.

So who is right? Well both. If the debate over ‘comprised’ and ‘comprised of’ shows us anything, it is that many so-called ‘rules’ of grammar are actually pretty flexible and can change over time. Like the Victorian grammarians who denounced starting a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’, or decreed that infinitives should never be split, adopting a hard line on ‘comprised of’ might be a Canutian task; one that, in the long run, is attempting to stem the natural development of English as it’s used by those who really matter – the people who speak it!

Here’s a link to the original article on The Economist’s website.