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]

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