Which is better: being right or being popular?

17 Jan

Originally posted 03 February 2009 @ Foviance.com

Terminology is a key factor in usability and user experience. When designing interfaces, it is critical to use language that users will understand and relate to. Industry jargon and weasel words will at best, appeal to a very small subset of your target audience and at worst, alienate a very large subset.So a recent discussion amongst the Foviance team about the correct use of ‘Log in’ vs ‘Login’ raised some interesting questions about “correct use” versus “popular use”.

Grammatically speaking, ‘Log in’ is the correct term. ‘Log in’ is a verb (an action word), whereas ‘Login’ is a noun. Therefore, if used on a button or a link (ie. a call to action), the terminology should directly reflect the action being performed. That being said, ‘Login’ appears quite frequently across the entire interweb and, as often happens in this fast- and ever-changing electronic world, usage drives meaning even if that usage is, grammatically at least, incorrect.

In my opinion if you’re going to the grammar Rodeo, it’s better to be a cowboy than a clown, but there are plenty of examples, particularly in English, of words being used incorrectly and out of context due to popular usage (a personal bugbear of mine is the frequent misuse of “literally”…don’t even get me started!) and as advertising has shown us, people are easily influenced by a compelling message. This subversion of meaning is particularly influential when employed by high profile and iconic brands who can easily create defacto standards or even invent new terms or meanings (Apple, Microsoft, etc.).

Grammar is gradually becoming a secondary consideration in a lot of online communication (txt speak, LOLs, etc.) which, depending on your perspective, could be a good or a bad thing. At its essence, the interweb is a communication media and the essence of communication is to convey meaning. But as we well know, meaning is highly subjective so the very usage of language can drive (or hijack) its etymology.

If everyone but you in the world is using a word incorrectly, who is wrong?

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