Never login or backup

I call this blog "Unix as a Second Language" for a reason. I spoke English long before I became a Unix geek and a well crafted sentence can still bring a thrill to my geeky little heart. The problem is that I find myself increasingly surrounded by people who just don't get some of the basic principles of the language. From casual email to otherwise polished marketing literature and professional web sites, the same mistakes abound. So I'm going to draw some lines between what's correct and what isn't in the hope that some readers will pick up some good habits.

The words that I'm going to rant about are login, setup, backup, cleanup, email and troubleshoot. The first four of these are far too often used in the same ungrammatical way. That is, they're used as if they were verbs. They are not. They are nouns. You may have a login for a particular system, but you don't "login on that system". You may back up a data center full of servers, but you don't "backup those servers". You can clean up the data center and you can set up a new file server, but you don't "cleanup the data center" any more than you "setup a file server".

On the other hand, the phrases "log in", "set up", "back up" and "clean up" all represents things that you presumably can do. In addition, I might be able to log you in, set you up, back you up or even clean you up if I were so inclined. If given a chance, I could also watch you logging in, setting up, backing up or cleaning up. Verbs are like that; they lend themselves to being used in various ways. Think back to English class -- past and present particples, "ed" and "ing" endings and such.

The noun forms of these words -- login, setup, backup and cleanup -- have largely come about as a result of our activities. Because we back up our systems, we call the resulting files or tapes our "backups". Because we need to enable our customers to log in, we create logins. Good enough.


I need to back up the server before you install that flaky application.
I need to create a login for everyone in the new department.
When you log in, you should be able to see the changes we have made.


If you backup the server first, you can install the flaky application.
Each user log in is unique.
Don't setup the accounts without passwords!

One of the easiest ways to remember when a word works as a verb is to try it out using an "ing" (present participle) ending. If the word is question is really a verb, it should sound right when you do. The phrase "set up" becomes "setting up" without any grammatical trauma. The word "backup" on the other hand, would turn into "backuping" and that clearly isn't OK.

The word "troubleshoot" is a problem only because I keep seeing it showing up as "trouble shoot" or "trouble shooting". Troubleshoot, troubleshooting and troubleshooter are all legitimate single words and shouldn't be broken into two pieces any more than "meantime" should be broken into "mean" and "time" (mean time).

The word email falls into a different grammtical "gotcha" altogether. Obviously a fairly recent (1980s) introduction to the language, email is used today as either a noun (e.g., "I have received a lot of email") and a verb (e.g., "I will email you when I get there"). These usages are largely in keeping with the uses of the word "mail". The use that still rankles nerves is the pluralization of this word into "emails". Until it's considered proper to say "I have a lot of mails waiting for me at the Post Office" (I like the sound of that, but it doesn't look right in print), the word "emails" is hard to swallow. I've been sticking to using "email messages" or phrases like "too much email", but I worry that someday the word "emails" might fall from my lips and cause me mental turmoil. In the meantime, I hope to keep pickuping as many good habits as bad ones!

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