Comprise again

rogersgeorge on May 10th, 2012

A pretentiousism is when you use a fancier word than you need, particularly when you use that fancy word incorrectly. One of my favorite such words to hate consists of the compose/comprise dichotomy.

I’m reading A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss. It’s a book on cosmology written to literate (read interested in cosmology) laypeople. So far the book has been a nice review of a lot of material about cosmology that I’ve already read, and it pulls some things together for me. On page 113 I ran into a nice correct use of “comprise,” and I decided to share it with you. Remember, “comprise” goes between the whole and its parts, in that order. It’s a rather long sentence; bear with me until you get near the end.

It is worth repeating the implications of this remarkable agreement more forcefully: Only in the first seconds of a hot Big Bang with an initial abundance of protons and neutrons that would result in something very close to the observed density matter in visible galaxies today, and a density of radiation that would leave a remnant that would correspond precisely to the observed intensity of the cosmic microwave background radiation today, would nuclear reactions occur that could produce precisely the abundance of light elements, hydrogen and deuterium, helium, and lithium, that we infer to have comprised the basic building blocks of the stars that now fill the night sky.

The part that I’m interested in is “…the abundance…that we infer to have comprised the building basic building blocks…” The abundance (the whole thing) comprises the blocks (plural, parts). A complicated sentence, but he got it right.

However, the book is good for more than a good example. On page 114 I found this poor misshapen gem:

When 60 percent of the visible matter in the universe is comprised of helium, there will be no necessity for production of primordial helium in a hot Big Bang in order to produce agreement with observation.

The universe will be 60% composed of helium, or if you prefer, the universe will be made up of 60% helium. (Best is to avoid the whole issue: the universe is 60% helium).
Dr. Krauss is hardly someone I’d accuse of being pretentious, but it’s fun to catch the smart guys once in a while, too.

One of the denser illustrations in the book

To be fair, Dr. Krauss uses “comprise” correctly at least twice more, in consecutive sentences, no less. Repetition is the mother of learning, so I’ll quote them here so you can practice seeing how the word is used correctly.

More recently, however, universe has come to have a simpler, arguably more sensible meaning. It is now traditional to think of “our” universe as comprising simply the totality of all that we can now see and all that we could ever see. Physically, therefore, our universe comprises everything that either once could have had an impact upon us or that ever will.

I leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader, to work out that these usages are correct.

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Gotta watch those hyphens

rogersgeorge on October 15th, 2011

Here’s a headline from The Daily Galaxy, a science feed from the Discovery Channel.

Galaxy Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

by Casey Kazan Daily Galaxy Editorial Staff
I enjoy reading this feed for its science content. Occasionally it gives me some material about good writing, too, mainly examples of what not to do. They should hire a better proofreader, harrumpf. Of course, maybe I’m just really picky. Here’s the picture that went with the article:

The alternate text for the picture is "Supermassive_Black_Hole_001." Presumably it's inside the bright spot at the center of this galaxy.

On to the writing lesson of the day. How do you interpret this headline? Is it about a galaxy that’s devouring black holes? Or is it about black holes that devour galaxies? Headlines must be as terse as possible, but a hyphen doesn’t take up much space, and here it makes a difference, especially to people who don’t know anything about cosmology. The way the headline is constructed you have a galaxy devouring some black holes. In a headline you can leave out things like helping verbs, so you’d naturally supply “is” and get “is devouring.” “Okay,” says the layman, what’s wrong with that? Sounds pretty exciting.” The headline is perfectly grammatical that way, too. Trouble is, that’s not what the writer wants to say.
You can interpret the headline another way, but first put a hyphen between the first two words:

Galaxy-Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

The hyphen makes the two words into a compound adjective describing the black holes. Now we have the black holes doing the devouring. That’s a completely different meaning! If you don’t have enough cosmology under your belt to know already, go read the article. You should have no trouble figuring out which interpretation is intended.

The headline has two other errors. One is editorial, and I suspect Mr. Kazan didn’t write the headline, because the headline contains an unscientific exaggeration. Read the article and you will see the exaggeration. The other error involves the typography. I leave identifying both errors as an exercise for the reader. If you can identify both, pat yourself on the back. If you give up, make a comment and I’ll tell all.