On vs. in?

Subject: On vs. in?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 11 May 2001 08:00:15 -0400

Erin Henderson wondered: <<We have a bit of a debate going about the use of
On and In for software documentation. I'd like to hear what the standards
are for other companies. For example, which is better: Click OK on the main
Click OK in the main window. Does it matter? Is there a particular reason
for using one over the other?>>

On the larger scale of things, it probably doesn't much matter. However,
I've seen an increasing usage trend towards avoiding the preposition
entirely and simply writing "Click X" where clicking is necessary. I have no
reservations about recommending this approach: it's shorter and no less
clear. In terms of informing the user where to click, a good interface will
typically present only a single OK button at a time, so there's usually no
need to specify which of several OKs the reader should click. If the
interface is a bit funkier, and has (say) a main window and a secondary
window, each with its own OK button, then it might make more sense to
provide the context (if that's not already crystal clear) before you state
the action: "In the main window, click OK".

You'll note that I've chosen "in" rather than "on" here, and my reasoning
goes as follows: when someone clicks "in" a window, this is an elliptical
way of saying "click within the area defined by the window". Saying "on" a
window is a subtly different concept; strictly speaking, the word "on" means
"on the surface or periphery of", and if the button isn't "on" the window in
this sense, then "on" is the wrong word. Compare, for example "there's a
face in my window" (someone's looking in) and "there's a face on my window"
(ouch! that's gotta hurt).

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that
English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words;
on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them
unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."-- James D. Nicoll


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