January 6, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: comprise & youth or youths

Posted in comprise tagged at 5:59 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Comprise again and again and again and again

A reader writes:

It’s a losing battle.

From the NY Times, January 3, 2011

“The new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, is comprised of the Bechtel Corporation, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, URS Corporation, Battelle,- and the University of California.”

I am sympathetic toward writers (but not so much the New York Times) who make this mistake because the erroneous usage is ubiquitous, and I think we have gotten used to it. I tend to agree with the writer that it is a losing battle and ‘is comprised of’ will eventually be considered standard, but for the time being, I’ll keep up the good fight.

Two things to remember about comprise: 1) it means to contain or to consist of, and 2) the whole comprises the parts; the parts never comprise the whole.

What does this mean? Let’s look at the sentence from the NY Times, above.

“The new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, is comprised of the Bechtel Corporation, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, URS Corporation, Battelle,- and the University of California.” WRONG

Comprise is used incorrectly in that sentence. You could say:

“The new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, is composed of the Bechtel Corporation, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, URS Corporation, Battelle,- and the University of California.”

or

“The new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, comprises the Bechtel Corporation, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, URS Corporation, Battelle,- and the University of California.”

In the sentence above, I am using comprise to mean ‘to consist of.’

By the way, I don’t know why there is an m dash before “the University of California.” There isn’t a grammatical reason for it, so I assume it has something to do with the content of the article.

So what do I mean about the whole comprising the parts? Well, using the same example,’ the whole’ is ‘The new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC,’ and it consists of Bechtel, Battelle, and all the other units listed, that is ‘the parts.’ So in the example above, the whole, Lawrence Livermore, comprises all the other entities, the parts.

It would be wrong to say:

The Bechtel Corporation, the Babcock & Wilcox Company, URS Corporation, Battelle, and the University of California comprise the new entity, Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC. WRONG

It would be incorrect because the parts never comprise the whole.

Does that make sense?

We can easily avoid the first error. All we have to do is remember to never use ‘of’ with ‘comprise.’ I’m not saying that it can’t be used correctly in some contexts, I’m just saying that if we make that a personal rule, we’ll never fall into the ‘is comprised of’ blunder.

Sadly, I don’t have any easy tricks for the second part. I think that we just have to remember that the whole comprises the parts. Oh well.

This is the fourth time we have discussed the problem with comprise-to see other explanations, go to: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/comprise/ but the fourth time is the charm, right?

Tip 2: Youth or youths

A reader writes:

I recently had a document edited and most all of my uses of ‘youth’ were changed to ‘youths’ as the plural…I thought ‘youth’ (as plural) sounded fine and better in the original. Have I been wrong all these years?

‘Youth’ can be either plural or singular depending on the way it is used. If we are talking about young people collectively, we would use ‘youth’ for the plural form.

The youth of today are more technologically savvy than we were.

When ‘youth’ is used this way, the individuals are neither identifiable nor countable.

If we are talking about young people as individuals who are countable, we would use ‘youths’ as the plural form.

I saw some youths hanging around the gas station earlier.

The youths in Mrs. Martin’s class participated in a survey about reading.

And that’s all there is to it.

2 Comments »

  1. Lindsey said,

    Can you please comment on the use of while/since. This morning on the news I heard:

    “Good morning Pittsburgh. Be advised, since it has been snowing, the snowplows are out.”

    Isn’t the correct usage of while/since a temporal (time sensitive) word… don’t you need a time cue?

  2. johnfbeerman said,

    Regarding your recent comment on “youth or youths”, the inquirer stated, in part “I recently had a document edited and most all of my uses of ‘youth’…

    I was surprised that you did not comment on the use of “most all”. Isn’t this phrase similar the ubiquitous “very unique”, that is to ask isn’t it preferred to say, simply “most” when one means most, and “all” when one means all.

    Note: I have retired recently to Tennessee, where there is a profusion of extra words to common talk, words that are redundant at best, and confusing at worst. One of my favorite Deep South expressions is “all y’all”. The first time I heard this explained as the plural form of “y’all”, I assumed that it was a joke, but I have actually heard it used in conversation. The speaker clearly felt that “y’all” referred to a single individual!


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