"Allow" v. "enable"? Pick the right dictionary!

Subject: "Allow" v. "enable"? Pick the right dictionary!
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 7 Mar 2000 10:18:21 -0500

Ron Rhodes wondered: <<I have used the word "allow" throughout my career as
a tech-writers. And I really don't have a problem with it even now. But I
am wondering if perhaps "enable" is better when documenting software...>>

By denotation (dictionary meaning), there's indeed little difference between
the two words. However, _connotation_ (how people actually use words) can
make a big difference. For example, a despot (did someone mention a certain
software developer on the left coast?) "allows" you to do something;
training or your own indomitable spirit "enables" you to do something. See
the difference? In the former case, someone else is making the decision for
you (and this comes off as very condescending to some people), and in the
latter, you yourself are in charge of the process. For most of us, it's not
a big deal, and for a relatively sophisticated audience I tend to us "lets";
that's shorter and less formal than "allows...to", and "feels" a bit less
condescending. But if you've got a significant component of "nervous
newbies" or "overstressed oldies" in your audience, "enables" is probably a
gentler way to say things.

<<But my Webster's and my Oxford rendered similar definitions for both

Both are fairly "prescriptive" dictionaries. A "descriptive" dictionary such
as the American Heritage unabridged is often a better resource for technical
writers, because it discusses usage rather than just presenting formal

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Hofstadter's Law: The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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