June 17, 2011
For Extra Credit, How Many Students Comprise a Score?

…and what does “comprise” mean? Robert Paul Wolff writes in The Philosopher’s Stone:

My eye was caught by the photo of the [supposedly inferior] Kindle on which was displayed the first page of Pride and Prejudice. I read what is certainly one of the most famous first lines in the entire genre of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Reading that sentence gives me the sort of familiar and reliable pleasure that I derive from hearing yet again Haydn’s “Kaiser” quartet or seeing Notre Dame at the bottom of my street in Paris. As I am sure any student of literature will agree, Austen’s words are deceptively simple, and it would take several careful paragraphs to unpack their complexities of ironic voice and narrative point of view.

Then I thought to myself: “In a career spanning fifty-three years, at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, Barnard, CCNY, Rutgers, CUNY, UMass, Williams, Yale, Boston University, Northeastern University, Duke, and UNC Chapel Hill, I have taught untold thousands of students, and yet there are probably no more than a handful — five score, perhaps — who could, if called upon, give unprompted an accurate, intelligent interpretation of that sentence.”


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at June 17, 2011 07:01 PM
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Yes, I assume you mean it to be backwards. Comprise "should" mean include, the opposite of compose, but tech writing and general ignorance has debased it. So it could mean either now. I've been fighting this battle far too long now. We defenders of the old lucidity salute you at our death, and at the triumph of Big Brother's language of lies. (Sorry, I've had my evening drinks.)

John Shannon

Posted by: John Shannon on June 17, 2011 8:31 PM

I hesitated, but finally went with "comprise" to avoid confusion ("How many students compose a score?"). Besides, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I've given up on comprise/compose like I've given up on like vs. as as you can plainly see. I've given up on hopefully, too, after thinking long and hard about, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Personally I wouldn't write (or even say), "Hopefully she won't be late this time," but I eventually stopped correcting it in student papers. I figured I was, like, pissing into the wind. Like.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on June 17, 2011 9:49 PM

Comprise is a synonym for include that implies that the following list is complete. Fowler knew his shit.

And one can continue to speak and write correctly even as the civilization, so called, in which one lives devolves into a post-literate society. Even there, as John Varley describes in Steel Beach, the survival and prosperity of the community will depend on those who can read and write.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on June 19, 2011 1:09 AM

4. Mark Twain on Jane Austen (1898)

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Posted by: Buck on June 24, 2011 10:58 AM
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