Distinctions that matter
Earlier this week, over at Language Log, Mark Liberman took a swipe at the comprise/compose distinction, pointing out through the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage entry on the subject and a set of recent examples that is comprised of has a long and not necessarily disreputable history in English.
He makes quite clear in the comments that his point is not that anything that was ever done in the past is OK.* It is to counter the prescriptivist position that some deplored usage is a modern corruption of some previous purity of language.
I still teach the prohibition against is comprised of, because Garner and AP and a host of others insist on it, but my confidence has been shaken.
Here is the thing. A useful principle enunciated by H.W. Fowler is that when a useful distinction of meaning has developed in the language, a careful writer or editor will strive to maintain it.
My students almost universally have difficulty with the lie/lay and who/whom distinctions. The reason is that those distinctions are passing out of the living language into the historical language, like thou/thee/you, and the main issue for an editor to resolve is when to strike the colors.
Career/careen is another lost cause, and one could comb the Associated Press Stylebook for others.
But there are other distinctions still worth maintaining. Loath and loathe may have been interchangeable spellings in the sixteenth century, but today the words have different meanings and intensities. Imply and infer are worth holding on to. A modified that/which distinction—use that exclusively for restrictive constructions, which mainly for nonrestrictive but occasionally for restrictive—makes sense.
And failing to observe some distinctions will still leave you looking less than educated: grisly/grizzly, palate/palette/pallet, discreet/discrete, free reign for free rein, and more. Want to suggest some?
The difficulty, and this is where an editor wins his or her spurs, lies in making informed and intelligent judgments: weighing the disagreements among the authorities, consulting his or her personal sense from wide reading of where the language is, determining whether the distinction is meaningful to the intended audience and appropriate for the publication and the occasion. There are often no easy answers, and you should distrust anyone who insists that there are.
*You have to be careful with the Oxford English Dictionary; you can find just about anything anyone has ever done in written English. The historical evidence has to be weighed. Jane Austen, for example, used every body … their. Further investigation shows that just about anyone else who ever published a book has also used the singular their. That carries weight. Austen also wrote her’s. Nobody is suggesting that we should go there.