‘Login’ vs. ‘Log in’: America’s disappearing adverbs

Imaginary verbs are becoming commonplace in American English. Are American schools teaching English grammar at all these days? U.S. English is beginning to lose subtlety and nuance.

The Wiki people understand correct usage. Does anyone else? (Image via Wikipedia entry on "Login")

WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2016 – As the beleaguered Popeye the Sailor Man often proclaimed, “I’ve stood all I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!” Upon reading a Weather Channel weather headline just now, I experienced the same kind of Popeye moment:

“Breaking: Flood Emergency in Louisiana, Entire Town Cutoff”

“Cutoff?” What the Sam Hill is “Cutoff?” Doesn’t the writer actually mean “cut off”?

It’s just the latest example of a bad grammar trend that probably got started somewhere early in the PC era when computer programmers conveniently saved a space in commands by joining a verb and an adverb to form… a verb. The whole process has been made more confusing since these portmanteau words can also quite correctly serve as nouns.

Let’s take the most common of these as an example: the twins “login” and “log in,” or their fraternal twins, “logon” and “log on.”

Minimal computer security requires that you identify yourself and then at least minimally affirm your identity to the computer before the machine allows you to operate it. While security in some areas is more complex these days, basic computer security is essentially what it’s been for over 30 years now—typing in your registered user name (“username”), typing in your (hopefully) secret password, then hitting “return.” If the computer recognizes the match, you’re in.

Your user name is frequently referred to as your “userid,” “username,” “login id” or “logon id.” It’s a batch of letters and/or numbers and/or symbols that (presumably) uniquely identify you to the machine. Entering your correct password next and hitting “return” confirms to the computer that, as far as it’s concerned, you are the genuine, admissible user and in you go.

I suspect that it’s the code words above—meant to serve as a stand-in for your actual identification data—that gradually led to the kind of grammatical error I complained about above. Your user name (username), entered along with your secret password can, I think, justifiably be described by the noun “logon”; as when, for example, your spouse wants to use your computer to copy one of your files and asks, “What’s your logon?” Meaning, “Can you give me your user id and password?”

Having obtained that information, however, your spouse would then “log in” (two separate words, verb and adverb) to your computer. “Log” (the verb) describes the action of typing in the user id and password. “In” is the adverb that answers the question “where?” You are logging IN to the computer, not out of it or anywhere else.

Is this a grammatical nitpick? Perhaps. And indeed, I have probably already lost the battle on this particular bit of computer gibberish. Everybody seems to know what this terminology means, and, alas, no one seems to care or even know that it’s not proper English grammar.

The problem is, however, that this sort of thing can get out of control, as did the word “impact,” which began its life as a perfectly good noun before some illiterate in the Pentagon turned it into an irritating verb. I seem also to have lost this particular battle, although former Gen. Al Haig’s later outrage—to “caveat that remark”—seems, blessedly, not to have proliferated.

No, the problem is that the “log in”-“login” conflation, turning a verb-adverb combination into a verb, seems to be proliferating where ever it feels like showing up. As in that Weather Channel headline cited above. You can certainly have an abrupt superhighway detour—a “cutoff,” which is a noun. But when you can’t get to a particular Louisiana town due to the high water surrounding it, you are “cut” (verb: prevented) “off” (adverb: unable to penetrate, unable to enter) from the town.

An adverb, according to Wikipedia, is” a word that modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb,” and other sentence parts. In other words, an adverb pinches in on the precise meaning and use of the part of speech (in this case, a verb) it’s linked to. By tacking a verb and adjective together habitually, as in this usage, the resulting non-word loses a bit of its specific meaning. That doesn’t amount to much in and of itself. But by propagating this kind of error to more and more verb-adverb pairings, the language gradually loses specificity and meaning.

Again, a nitpick? Perhaps. After all, we don’t speak the way Shakespeare and his pals once spoke. All languages change and adapt. But changes such as the example we’ve dealt with here, which propagate primarily due to the fact that U.S. schools no longer bother to teach proper grammar, gradually results in the dumbing down of language and the dumbing down of the populace as well.

That, in fact, may be a specific aim in some political quarters. But the result is to gradually erode the specificity and subtlety of language and expression in general to the point where crucial details get lost in the muck, making it easier and easier for politicians and mountebanks to confuse the public. And that’s why we make such a fuss out of poor grammatical constructs like this one and its equally awful associates.

Combined with the cowardly and flagrantly incorrect use of the possessive pronoun “their” to dodge any possibility of alerting the gender-based PC police, and a host of other language outrages, this constant, corrosive dumbing down of American English grammar and usage will lead to a less educated and more easily controlled populace. That’s something we need to halt, and soon. And it’s administrivia like this that can function as a first line of defense.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17