Exploring Some English Miscellany



American English offers us plenty to consider, discuss, and define. Some items warrant their own full and separate treatment; others gather as grammatical bits to be captured and held up like fireflies in a jar.

We’ve collected another group of these linguistic lightning bugs to arrive at more direction for concise and careful writing. Let’s look at what’s flashing:

Hack (verb)  This word dating back to the thirteenth century has a range of meanings and uses as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. Applying it to a specific verb definition (one of several other than “to cut or sever with crude strokes”), correspondence to GrammarBook suggested the correct meaning of hack is “to break into a computer or computer files.” It also pointed out that the word is mistakenly used, particularly in blogs, to mean “to take a shortcut or a more efficient way to do something,” as in He hacked the test to finish with a better score in less time than everyone else.

Within this context, both dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster define hack as “to circumvent security and break into (a network, computer, file, etc.), usually with malicious intent” (Some teenagers down the street found a way to hack the school’s report-card system).

Dictionary.com further defines hack as “to modify (a computer program or electronic device) or write (a program) in a skillful or clever way” (The developers hacked the app to protect it better from viruses).

More informally, it also provides “to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing (something): to hack a classic recipe; to hack your weekend with healthy habits.”

Drawing from these current definitions, we would allow that, beyond meaning to break into or adjust a computer or computer files, hack can more broadly convey “to properly apply ingenuity.”

First vs. Firstly  Most of us have probably seen both uses and wondered which is correct. Perhaps we can settle the matter, at least among our community of writers and grammarians.

Theodore M. Bernstein explores it in his book The Careful Writer: “Some have for obscure reasons objected to the word firstly. Yet all have sanctioned secondly, thirdly, fourthly….If there is going to be quarreling over whether to use first…secondly or firstly…secondly, perhaps the obvious and simplest way to handle a series is first…second (both of which words, by the way, are as much adverbs as are firstly, secondly). This solution, incidentally, takes care of [adverbs such as] forty-thirdly.

While firstly is not ungrammatical and may still be used in writing, GrammarBook sides with Mr. Bernstein on the issue. We prefer the economy of using one less syllable in first (second, third, etc.). We reinforce this stance in our article Putting Out the Patrol for Made-Up Words.

Anyway vs. Anyways  Most of us have heard both forms of the adverb: Even if we’ll be twenty minutes late, we should go anyway; Anyways, let’s get on with the discussion.

The correct use is anyway. The Careful Writer’s Mr. Bernstein seconds our position: “[Anyway is] one word when it means in any case, as in, ‘Whether it rains or shines, the game will be played anyway.’ Otherwise two words, as in ‘The doctor did not regard the illness as in any way serious’” [in this context, way is the object in the prepositional phrase in any way, which here is an adjectival unit describing serious].

Maze vs. Labyrinth  These two words are often used interchangeably, and they appear as synonyms in some dictionaries and thesauruses. While both nouns might summon common images of confusing pathways, they carry distinct differences for concise and careful writing.

maze is a complex, branching (multicourse) arrangement with choices of path and direction: a puzzle designed to challenge and confuse. It also may have different entries and exits. In application to a situation, we might write something such as The haunted house was a maze of delightful fright.

labyrinth, on the other hand, has a single (unicourse) path that does not branch. Although it might wind or bend, it will guide without confusion or choices to the center. Because a labyrinth has a single point of shared entry and exit, one would have to backtrack through it in order to leave. In application to a situation, we might write something such as The fifth-floor office is a labyrinth leading to the director’s desk.

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, identify if the italicized words apply correct (or preferable) usage.

1. After watching several YouTube videos, I was able to hack custom tuning keys for my guitar.
a) Yes
b) No

2. Firstly, it’s too cold to go to the concert. Secondly, it lasts until midnight and we need to be home by eleven.
a) Yes
b) No

3. No worries about Sheila’s missing that meeting—she just realized she was double-booked anyways.
a) Yes
b) No

4) I know there’s one path to one solution, but did they have to make such a maze of it?
a) Yes
b) No

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. After watching several YouTube videos, I was able to hack custom tuning keys for my guitar.
a) Yes [hack can mean “to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing (something)”]

2. Firstly, it’s too cold to go to the concert. Secondly, it lasts until midnight and we need to be home by eleven.
b) No [first and second are the preferred forms]

3. No worries about Sheila’s missing that meeting—she just realized she was double-booked anyways.
b) No [the correct form of the adverb is anyway]

4) I know there’s one path to one solution, but did they have to make such a maze of it?
b) No [a single, unicursal path would imply a labyrinth]

Posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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7 Comments on Exploring Some English Miscellany

7 responses to “Exploring Some English Miscellany”

  1. Kevin Grierson says:

    I am curious where you came up with the idea that a labyrinth has only one course and that maze is not properly a synonym. It is not possible (unless one gets turned around) to get lost in a unicourse pathway. That is surely not what was meant by the reference to the labyrinth of the Minotaur, which was a confusing maze with many alternate passages–only one of which led out to freedom. Furthermore, many dictionaries list the following (or something quite similar) as their primary definition of labyrinth: “A complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way; a maze.” See, e.g., https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/labyrinth. Indeed, Oxford dictionaries references the origin of the word as the labyrinth of the Minotaur constructed by Daedelus.

    • We appreciate why you would further question an aim to distinguish “maze” from “labyrinth.” We acknowledge these words will likely remain interchangeable in speech, which often does not allow the same pauses for careful thought as writing does. If we swap them when speaking, we typically will not lose or compromise understanding. You are correct in that some modern dictionaries include the words as synonymous. Further investigation into the topic also will reveal that positions on it begin to diverge. Distinguishing the words gives us a greater range of precision by allowing one to represent a unicursal path and the other a multicursal one. We view this as an advantage in contemporary writing.

      We appreciate that some writers will continue to use the words as synonyms, and they would not be wholly mistaken. At the same time, if we wish to differentiate “maze” from “labyrinth” to create sharper tools in our toolbox, perhaps we as a community of careful writers can and will achieve this. Our language, after all, is always evolving, and we as communicators are catalysts.

  2. Michael says:

    As a software engineering professional, if we set aside the “breaking into a secure system” meaning for the moment, “to hack” or “a hack” refers to a quick and dirty shortcut method of achieving correct operation, not an elegant, properly-designed solution for the same problem. It is not generally used in a positive sense, except that to come up with a clever and economical short-cut solution that actually works does require ingenuity. Therefore, the one who cooks up a hack that gets the software bug fixed is usually regarded as very smart, but the solution itself leaves much to be desired.

    To come up with a non-computer analogy, consider the Rube Goldberg contrivances that NASA designed to get the astronauts in Apollo 13 back safely to earth. Their solution to the CO2 problem, for example, was ingenious, but about as far removed from an elegant solution as could be imagined. This is the sense in which a “hack” is used in the software world. I would not advocate using it in a generally positive sense, since it carries along with it a sense of bad design and undesirable shortcuts having been taken.

  3. LeahyPhoto says:

    “We prefer the economy of using one less syllable in first (second, third, etc.).” This argument appears to favor the US practice of omitting the -ly with all adverbs.

  4. Janice H. says:

    “We prefer the economy of using one less syllable…” Shouldn’t one say “one fewer syllable”?

    • You’ve hit upon an interesting English oddity. Here’s what we have to say in the Fewer vs. Less entry in our Confusing Words and Homonyms section:

      Here’s a seemingly innocent sentence: I now have two less reasons for going. Make it two fewer reasons. If you can count the commodity (two reasons), less will be wrong. You have less justification, but fewer reasons.

      Exception: When the amount is one, such a sentence should read, “I now have one reason fewer” or “one less reason,” but not “one fewer reason.” Admittedly, this is a head-scratcher, but that’s English for you.

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