When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

Summary:This article promises to be a fun romp through the sausage-making process that turns a word into part of language.

Original image courtesy CBS News.

If you prefer cyberattack over cyber attack, are you more liberal, more conservative, or just undecided?

Next week, I'm doing a CBS Interactive webcast entitled Top 10 tips to protect your business against cyberattack. It promises to be an interesting and important session. This article, on the other hand, just promises to be a fun romp through the sausage-making process that turns a word into part of language.

When the CBS Interactive team produces one of these webcasts, a whole lot of very talented individuals are involved. One of the team members asked me a question I'd honestly never thought much about, "Should the word 'cyberattack' be two words, 'cyber attack'?"

Let me be clear that by formal training, I went to engineering school.

That means it's taken me years to learn to write "receive" instead of "recieve," and know when it's "its" and not "it's". I was not formally trained in grammar. I was formally trained in how to not blow myself up (true story). There is a difference in skill sets here.

Nonetheless, I know that "cyberspace" is one word. I know I have the title of "cyberwarfare advisor," where the "cyberwarfare" part is also one word. And yet, what of "cyberattack"?

Here's how I normally solve these things.

The first stop is Webster's. As it turns out, merriam-webster.com doesn't know of "cyberattack". When you type it in as one word, you get a lot of other cyberstuff, all shown as one word:

So that's at least a point in the favor of the Single Word Theory. Being a completionist, I decided to type in "cyber attack" as two words. Here, I made an intellectual connection I never thought possible. Apparently, "cyber attack" (two words) isn't in the dictionary, but we English language aficionados should consider using "iceberg lettuce" instead. Seriously. It was too good. I had to go grab a screenshot:

Can you now understand why I love this gig so much?

Anyway, we have a slight lean towards the single word usage, because the dictionary at least recommended other words with cyber prefixes, rather than the species of L. stativa in the genus Lactuca of the family Asteraceae (in other words, iceberg lettuce).

A second way I tend to solve word usage puzzles is by going to what was once the most well-respected source of such things, The New York Times. If The New York Times used a word in a certain way, that's certainly good enough for me. As the title "Cyberattack on Google Said to Hit Password System" shows, the Old Gray Lady (or is it Grey?) prefers the one-word form, "cyberattack".

But I've promised you that I won't be partisan. As every Tea Party member knows, The New York Times is the bastiony bulwark of the East Coast liberal elite. So how do we solve this? Who could we turn to?

Ah, of course. Nothing is more fair and balanced than FOXNews (disclosure: I've been a guest on FOXNews). How might FOXNews use "cyber" and "attack" together? As it turns out, FOXNews uses the two word "cyber attack" form, as in "Critical U.S. Infrastructure at Risk of Cyber Attack, Experts Warn".

Uh, oh.

Okay, how about the so-called liberal-leaning CNN? Disclosure: I'm a CNN contributor for the Anderson Cooper 360 program. CNN, in the article "2011 cyberattack targets: iPhone, Facebook, Foursquare", used the single-word form of "cyberattack," just like The New York Times.

Aha! Oh, wait.

CNN also uses the double word form, as in "European Union under cyber attack as major summit begins".

By refusing to pick sides in the "cyberattack" vs. "cyber attack" battle, does this mean CNN is more fair and balanced than Fox? No, I could not resist. What can I say? I'm weak.

Let's look at a few other outlets who use the single word form of "cyberattack":

For whatever reason, both ABC News and WaPo have been accused of slight liberal leanings (disclosure: I've been interviewed by both ABC News and the Washington Post). They're not alone in their use of the single-word form. Other CBS Interactive properties (ZDNet is a CBS Interactive property) also use the single word form of "cyberattack" (and, yes, disclosure, I've been linked to, written for, and been covered by both CNET and CBS News):

Okay, so we know that ABC News, CBS News, PC World, ComputerWorld, CNET, the Washington Post, and The New York Times all favor the single-word usage form, "cyberattack".

Does this mean that FOXNews stands alone in its dual word usage?

Well, no. Not really. As you might imagine, the Wall Street Journal (which, like FOXNews, is owned by Rupert Murdoch) uses two words for "cyber attack," as in "Wide Cyber Attack Is Linked to China".

Here are a few others who use the dual-word form:

W..wait a minute! The White House? The Obama White House? The Obama White House likes the two word form "cyber attack," just like FOXNews. What could it mean?

If FOXNews likes "cyber attack" and the Wall Street Journal likes "cyber attack" -- and the White House also likes "cyber attack," what's the connection? What could it be?

Heh. So now that I've channeled my inner Glenn Beck, let's look at a few outliers.

There's also "cyber-attack," for those organizations unwilling to commit. In the Solomon-like, hyphenate-the-word-down-the-middle category, we get industry publication eWEEK (sigh, disclosure, I've also written for and been written about in eWEEK), along with -- wait for it -- ABC News:

Let's summarize what we've learned

CBS News, PC World, ComputerWorld, CNET, the Washington Post, and The New York Times all favor the single-word version, "cyberattack". Further, while Merriam-Webster doesn't acknowledge the single word "cyberattack," it does acknowledge other single-word cyberusages.

FOXNews, the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Christian Science Monitor, and the Obama White House all favor the double word version, "cyber attack". When it comes to two words, Merriam-Webster would rather you use "iceberg lettuce" than "cyber attack".

eWEEK prefers the hyphenated version, "cyber-attack".

CNN is trying to stay in the middle, so it uses both "cyberattack" and "cyber attack". And ABC News, who apparently is the most indecisive of the bunch, is pretty much willing to go with "cyberattack," "cyber attack," or "cyber-attack".

What is the right word usage?

How the heck am I supposed to know? Didn't I tell you I went to engineering school? Yes. Yes I did.

Seriously, though, it seems there's no clear winner. My practice in the past has been to go first with the dictionary (which vaguely favors the single-word answer) and then The New York Times (which definitely favors the single-word answer).

In addition, since I'm writing and speaking on behalf of CBS, and since both CBS News and CNET use the single-word variant, it would seem prudent for me to use "cyberattack" rather than "cyber attack". I know which side my bread is buttered on!

Now, is it "webcast" or "Webcast"? Aarhhhhhhgh!

Topics: Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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