Last updateFri, 02 Oct 2015 1pm

Tech industry spawns confusion with its interchangeable language

As I write this I have just finished a telephone support call made all the more difficult by a failure to communicate.  I really want to blame this problem on an Englishman by the name of Peter Mark Roget, but in truth he did not create the problem in 1805; he just documented it and quantified it.  The real problem is that the English language has so many synonyms and there is no consistency or agreement amongst technical people as to how they should be used.

When I was in elementary school one of my teachers critiqued my writing when she wrote in red pencil, “Learn to use a thesaurus.”  I took that advice to heart and am now suffering the consequences.  In my telephone support call just finished, my client had a little problem following my instructions whenever I used a word that did not appear on his screen.  Finally he asked me why Apple used “delete” some places, “remove” in other places and “erase” in still other places and even “Move to Trash” elsewhere on the same computer.

I had no answer to offer in response except to say that all software companies do this.  Over the years Microsoft has used several different names for the “task bar” or “status bar” or “notification area” – all of which are the same bar that includes the start button and the clock.

Two nouns tech people use interchangeably are “disk” and “drive.”  With many modern devices such as tablets no longer using round spinning drives, the term disk is taking on a legacy status.  Likewise, many people use “directory” and “folder” interchangeably, even though directory is the older term and is now being used with less frequency.

Google spawned confusion when they opted to change “Google Drive” to “Google Docs,” or was it the other way around?  Both names can still be found in the how-to tutorials on Google.com.

Even I am not immune to communications problems.  I posted a message in a newsgroup describing a problem with the “elevator bar” that may be used to move the screen up and down.  Immediately one of the other techs in the news group scolded me for not calling it the “scroll bar.”  Of note in this case is that the other guy knew immediately what I meant – he just wanted to promote using his favorite term.

Adobe and Microsoft have erred in the opposite direction by recycling the same name for distinct products when it might have been better for them to use different names.  Very few users know the difference between “Adobe Acrobat” and “Acrobat Reader” except that one is free and the other not.  Microsoft created confusion when it made Outlook and Outlook Express, and has now compounded the error by renaming Hotmail.com to Outlook.com.

Finally, some tech terms are good for a laugh.  Years ago when everyone used 3½ and 5¼ floppy disks it was common usage in Australia to distinguish between them by the names “floppy” and “stiffy.”  A visiting Aussie sales lady, a lovely miss, was demonstrating her product at a trade show I attended.  She coyly asked my friend “Do you have a stiffy for me?”  He reddened with embarrassment and stammered “ No, No, I would never …”

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his website at SMAguru.com.

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