Displays versus appears--which one?

Subject: Displays versus appears--which one?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 15 Nov 2000 08:39:39 -0500

Mario reports <<My last tech editor would ding me if I used 'appears'
instead of 'displays' when describing the action a
window or other grahical element "takes" (for lack of a better word) when
you click on it. She said to use 'displays' instead. I got into that
habit.>>

Break the habit. They might even have a "patch" for it! <g> There have been
some logical arguments made against the use of "appears" ("appears to do
what?", "when does it appear?", "what if it doesn't actually appear?"), but
I'm not convinced that the word poses significant problems to real-world
users. (Any usability data on this would be welcome.) Although the word
"displays" can certainly be intransitive (e.g., "during the mating dance,
the male peacock displays"), the usage in modern English is overwhelmingly
transitive ("Y displays X"), so saying that a window "displays" raises the
question of just what it displays. More relevant from the user's standpoint,
neither word is really necessary. All you really need to do is to name a new
window the first time readers see it to provide them with a reference to
what they're looking at on the screen and so they know they're in the right
place. In your specific example:

<<Select ABC. The GHI window displays, on which you can...>>

I'd prefer to read "To do X, select ABC" if the context has not yet been
announced and "Select ABC" if the context is already clear (e.g., if the
previous step told them they're already looking at the ABC dialog box). The
second sentence could then become "In the GHI window, [look at something, do
something, whatever]" Conversely, if you want to draw attention to what the
window shows, you could say "The GHI window displays a list of choices
for..." or something similar.

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

"When ideas fail, words come in very handy."--Goethe

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