Delete or remove?

What’s the difference between delete and remove? When should you use the word “delete” on a user interface or in a document, and when “remove”? Here’s an explanation that makes sense to me.

Use “delete” when you’re getting rid of the thing entirely – when it’s disappearing from the data store. Use “remove” when you’re subtracting it from a group or a list, but it remains available in the data store.

An example is the model of users and groups. Let’s say the user arthurdent belongs to two groups: spacers and earthlings. When Arthur no longer lives on planet Earth, you would remove arthurdent from the earthlings group. But if Arthur has departed the universe without leaving so much as a towel behind, you would delete the username arthurdent.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you have a number of credit card charges, which you’re adding to two expense reports. By mistake, you’ve added one of the charges to Expense Report 1 as well as Expense Report 2.  So you need to remove that charge from the report. In addition, there’s an erroneous credit card charge of zero dollars, which you can delete without adding it to a report.

Delete or remove

Works for me. 🙂 What do you think?

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 14 February 2015, in language, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’m a little wary of relying on this usage. The fundamental issue here is between objects and references. Delete means delete an object; remove means delete a reference to an object. In each case that you cite you remove an object from a collection by deleting the reference to that object.

    The problem is that readers tend to have a hard time recognizing when something is an object and when it is a reference (even supposing they understand the difference between objects and references). So the implicit difference between deleting an object and deleting a reference may not be clear to them at all.

    They will not recognize the difference between deleting and removing unless they understand the difference between deleting an object and deleting a reference. Otherwise, deleting and removing are going to just seem like synonyms to them.

    Given that it takes only a couple of extra words to say “delete the reference to X” rather than “remove X”, I would be inclined to say “delete the reference” in any context where it matters that the reader recognize the distinction.

    In a context where it does not matter that the reader recognize the distinction, the two words are functionally synonymous, so it will not matter (or be noticed) which you use.

    So I think the distinction is absolutely legitimate, but I don’t think this is the way to make it. The usage would constitute a convention for your documentation, and in an every page is page one world, there is no room for the conventions of individual works.

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