October 1, 2009

Language Tips: Consists of or consists in & proved/proven again

Posted in consists of or consists in, proved and proven at 2:38 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Consists of or consists in

A reader writes:

Re: ”The CAMCI consists of subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings. RIGHT”

I learned that there is a difference between ‘consist of’ and ‘consist in’ but I could never figure out which is supposed to be used when. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern (2d ed 1965!) says that ”c. of introduces a material, and c. in a definition of statement of identity” which is why I guess I haven’t a clue which is which. The examples give me no help either: “we must not say the moon consists in green cheese . . . nor virtue consists of being good.”

Can you help?

Well, you learn something new every day (and for that-learning something new every day- I am constantly grateful). I was not familiar with the phrase ‘consist in,’ but now that I have gotten to know it, I intend to use it on occasion.

We know that ‘consists of’ means is made of.

The sample consists of all female physicians in Allegheny County.

The course consists of lectures, discussions, and readings.

‘Consists of’ should be used when referring to physical or material things.

‘Consists in,’ on the other hand, refers to non-material things or qualities. I looked at lots of definitions but found none that was truly satisfactory to me until I found this one: has as its essential character.

A happy life consists in tranquility of mind.
Cicero, Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC – 43 BC)

The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.
Voltaire, French writer, essayist, and philosopher (1694 – 1778)

In these quotes, if you replace ‘consists in’ with ‘has as its essential character,’ the meanings hold.

Garner, in his Modern American Usage (3rd ed 2009), provides a helpful explanation.

American writers often ignore this distinction. Consist of is used in reference to materials; it precedes the physical elements that compose a tangible thing. The well-worn example is that concrete consists of sand, gravel, cement, and water.

Consist in (= to have as its essence) refers to abstract elements or qualities or Intangible things. Thus, a good moral character consists in integrity, decency, fairness, and compassion.

Of course, he goes on to say:

This construction is literary in tone and is not often seen today in general writing. Sad to say, it may now seem creaky to most readers.

It doesn’t sound at all creaky to me. Okay, maybe it does sound creaky, but now that I know its meaning, I like it quite a lot. Maybe we can increase its popularity and rejuvenate ‘consist in.’ Wouldn’t that be fun?

Tip 2: Proved or proven?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding proved/proven. If a sentence is constructed passively, shouldn’t it use ‘proven’? I got a worksheet in science class that kept saying ‘this was proved’ or ‘a theory is proved.’ Stuff that just confused the heck out of me because it sounded so wrong in my head as I read it. I’m from Iowa, by the way.

Okay, we tackled this in the past, but we can go another round.

First, the usage of ‘proved’ or ‘proven’ has nothing to do with the passive voice. In most dictionaries, both of these words are included as the past participle of ‘prove’ and can properly be used that way. ‘Proven’ is somewhat more common in the US, and ‘proved’ is more common in the UK.

When I googled them, the results were very close: 101,000,000 hits for ‘proven,’ and 102,000,000 for ‘proved.’ Okay, it is a million hits worth of difference, but I suspect that in the universe of google, that is pretty close. I could be wrong.

However, I must say that three of the titans of language usage-Bryson, Fowler, and Garner-disagree with this. All of these mavens report that ‘proved’ should be considered the only proper past participle of ‘prove,’ and ‘proven’ should only be used as an adjective. I tend to take these guys seriously. I think you will be fine using either ‘proved’ or ‘proven’ as the past participle, but given the predilection of my heroes, from now on, I will use only ‘proved’ as the past participle and ‘proven’ as the adjective.

The experiment proved that oil and water really don’t mix.

The hypothesis was proved to be false.

The proven method of mixing oil and water is to add a bonding agent like detergent.

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