When should we use one word, when should we use two, for terms like “log in”, “sign up”, “back up”, and the like? This is a hot topic among technical writers, UX writers, and any designers who use text in their products.
The question is particularly relevant in the software industry, but it affects other product areas too. For example, a gym may invite customers to an exercise class with wording like this:
We promise you a great workout
Work out with your friends and colleagues
How can we tell whether we should use one word or two?
Even if we ourselves already know the difference, how can we teach other people, like the engineers, designers, product managers, and other people who work on our product interfaces and documentation?
A presentation – a bit of fun with a serious goal
I’ve put together a presentation that explains a way to help ourselves and others decide when to use one word, when to use two. It’s a bit of fun, but with a serious goal.
You can find the presentation on SlideShare: One word or two? How to teach the difference between “login” and “log in”, and other mind-bogglingly important compound words.
This blog post contains some extracts from the presentation.
The presentation shows a couple of slides containing a few sentences. Embedded in the sentences are some strings of repeated letters, like lllll or bbbbb.
To play along, you’ll need to replace the string of letters with the terms “log in” or “back up”.
Try speaking the sentences in your head., or even saying them out loud. This is where the bit comes in about your partner needing to be in a good mood: you could even ask your partner to play along with you!
In the first slide, replace llllllll with “log in”
Here’s the first slide with letters for replacement – replace each series of lllll with “log in”. Don’t write anything down – just say the sentences in your head or out loud:
In the next slide – replace bbbbb with “back up”:
What’s the outcome?
Did you notice any pattern in the way you pronounced the words “login” and “log in”?
If you’re like me, your stress pattern in the middle sentence is different from the first and third sentences.
In the middle sentence, we give equal emphasis to both parts of the phrase: log in.
In the first and third sentences, we give greater emphasis to the first part of the phrase: login.
The stress patterns are the same for backup.
In the middle sentence, we give equal emphasis to both parts of the phrase: back up; log in.
In the first and third sentences, we give greater emphasis to the first part of the phrase: backup; login.
And it’s the middle sentence that uses two words, while the first and third use one word.
So, you can use stress patterns to decide whether to use one word or two.
That’s one way of doing things, but what’s the theory behind it?
The rules are something like this:
- If the phrase is acting as a noun, use one word. This includes cases when the phrase is used to qualify another noun.
- If it’s a verb, use two words.
The presentation goes into more detail and includes some sources and additional reading.
What about hyphens?
Yes, what about hyphens. I think this is my favourite slide, because it shows a pic of a Tawny Frogmouth. They’re the coolest birds ever.
I’ll leave you to read the rest in the presentation itself
The complete presentation is on SlideShare: One word or two? How to teach the difference between “login” and “log in”, and other mind-bogglingly important compound words.
(Note: This presentation is a prettified and updated version of my earlier blog post, published in April 2014. There’s a spider in that one.)
‘Login’ or ‘log in’? One word or two? It’s an oft-debated question. I’m not proposing a hard-and-fast rule, though I do have my preferences. What this post offers is a handy way of choosing between one word and two, if it’s important to you.
It’s not just logging in that’s affected. There are plenty more cases where we need to choose one word or two:
- ‘logon’ or ‘log on’
- ‘logout’ or ‘log out’
- ‘signup’ or ‘sign up’
- ‘shutdown’ or ‘shut down’
- ‘backup’ or ‘back up’
- ‘setup’ or ‘set up’
- and more, including words not related to computing, such as ‘workout’ versus ‘work out’
Who’s up for an experiment?
Warning: Don’t try this at home, unless your partner is in a good mood.
Try speaking these sentences out loud, replacing ‘bbbbbbb’ with ‘backup’ and ignoring the spelling for now:
- What is your bbbbbbb strategy?
- When did you last bbbbbbb your data?
- When did you last do a bbbbbbb?
Now try these, replacing ‘llllllll’ with ‘login’:
- What are your llllllll details?
- Where can I llllllll to the bank’s website?
- My llllllll failed.
Did you notice any pattern in the way you pronounced the words “back/up” and “log/in”? If you’re like me, your stress pattern in the middle sentences would be different from the first and third sentences.
- In the middle sentence, you would give equal emphasis to both parts of the phrase: back up; log in.
- In the first and third sentences, you would give greater emphasis to the first part of the phrase: backup; login.
And the answer is…
‘Backup’ or ‘back up’:
- What is your backup strategy?
- When did you last back up your data?
- When did you last do a backup?
‘Login’ or ‘log in’:
- What are your login details?
- Where can I log in to the bank’s website?
- My login failed.
Rules and things
It may be that you decide to go with the growing common usage, and just use one word (like ‘login’) for everything. But if you want to follow the ‘rules’, they’re something like this:
- If it’s a verb, use two words.
- If it’s a noun, including cases when the noun is used to qualify another noun, use one word.
What about hyphens (‘-‘)? Technical writers try to avoid them.
Who decreed that this is how it’s done, and where is it written down? Most tech writers and other guardians of language would agree that we should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and that there are a equally-viable alternatives out there. But we also agree that it’s good to have a standard, so that our readers have a smooth ride through the documentation and application screens.
Here are some style guides and commentaries that agree we use one word for a noun, two for a verb:
- Guardian and Observer Style Guide – Scroll down to the entries for ‘log in’ and ‘login’.
- Apple Style Guide – See the entry for ‘log in (v.), login (n., adj.), log out (v.), logout (n., adj.)‘, on page 96.
- Log in vs. login by Grammarist – This post has some useful examples from online newspapers.
- A thread on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange – People express various opinions, but the consensus is one word for a noun, two for a verb.
- Another thread on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange – This one is particularly cool, because someone pointed out in a comment that the instructions on the Stack Exchange page itself said ‘Sign up or login’, and Stack Exchange fixed it!
- The Wikipedia page on login – The page consistently uses ‘login’ as a noun and ‘log in’ as a verb. It also states, ‘The noun login comes from the verb (to) log in‘.
- And someone who has a strong opinion, backed up by good research: “Login” is not a verb.
Who cares? Is this a difference between US and British usage? I don’t think so. It’s more a difference between people who feel a sense of jarring disconnect when someone uses ‘login’ and the like as a verb, and people who don’t. If you do want to differentiate, the pronunciation test may be the quickest way to decide whether you need one word or two.
There’s only one word for this spider: Eek!
This spider took up residence between my window panels for a while. It’s a huntsman: huge, very fast, scary but beautiful, and largely harmless. I put the peg there for scale. It’s a large peg.