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The first item under What topics can I ask about here? is

Word choice and usage

It seems this is OK when talking about how to describe the usage of a product, for example. But some people seem to object to questions about language and word choice in user interface design. I have seen questions closed as off-topic and down-voted for, as far as I can tell, this reason.

This seems wrong to me; good communication in user interfaces is important (for ease-of-use and sometimes even for safety reasons). This could be text on a graphical user interface or error messages issued by a program.

Are those objecting to this sort of question just confused by the rule about not asking about "Naming, including programming variables/classes"? Or should we not ask questions about how to express things as clearly and concisely as possible?

In summary, should the use of English in UI design be in scope or not?

I have a seen a few cases where someone is asked "Is this to do with programming" (where it isn't obvious from the question but one might read between the lines) and if they say yes, the question is rapidly closed for being "off topic". (Even if it raises interesting questions of grammar or usage.)

So, perhaps a related question is: is any question that has any connection at all to programming automatically off limits?


There is a related question here: Use of EL&U as a lazy programmers resource [duplicate]

I don't mind if a questioner wants help choosing suitable terms for his application to display (for example, when presenting user choices). But I really can't see why EL&U should concern itself with choice of variable names.

Which would basically be my position as well.

  • +1 Thank you for asking this question here. I'll try to summarise what I've gleaned over time about this topic and I look forward to mods and other established members chiming in with reference to underlying reasons for or against. Not that my opinion matters all that much about this, but I also welcome newer members sharing their thoughts on the matter, and why 'naming' questions do or don't fit well with the aims of EL&U. – Lawrence Aug 19 '18 at 14:40
  • I think that the sort of usage folks are asking about should matter. "Naming" is already explicitly off-topic, and I think those sorts of questions come up a lot in programming and have the least to do with English. On the other hand, a question isn't necessarily off-topic or uninteresting just because the motive for the question came from a programming task. Does it matter what the word is going to be used for if a SWR question is otherwise well-asked? – ColleenV Aug 20 '18 at 12:15
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From what I've gathered through various comments etc on EL&U, here are the main objections posed by those who have been associated with the site longer than I have:

  1. The site exists as a repository for future reference, so questions that are left open should be those that show promise of helping future visitors - that is a distinguishing factor between Stack Exchange's philosophy and that of discussion boards. It's been expressed that naming one person's variable or UI control doesn't help with naming that of someone else.

  2. The English doesn't matter in this cases. For programming variables - and the same applies to some extent to the naming of UI elements - the actual name given doesn't really matter. You might call a variable index or i or englishlanguageandusage, and it will increment/assign/etc just as well.

On #2, setting aside the issue of readability for the time being, I think it's important to consider whether we're really talking about English "as she is spoke". Traditionally, we'd consider the context of 'English' to be phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. But with UI elements, there's also the visual aspect. For example, a control might be labelled "Left" or "Previous" or "Prev" or "Before", but it might just as well be labelled "<" or be given a graphical overlay. The issue here is where to draw the line between English and UI.

That line is really the heart of the matter. EL&U was intended as a community for fluent English speakers (per the tour: linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts) to discuss the language. Whether the label still fits is a separate issue, but to me, the fundamental criterion for a question to be considered on-topic is that it must fundamentally address the English language. That's not to say that other criteria don't apply; it's just that if a question is more about UI aesthetics than about English, then it's on shaky ground. If it is fundamentally about English, then whether UI comes into play as well is irrelevant.

I'll comment on a couple of recent examples:

This question asks for a word for a menu item to "merge the configuration and the selection steps in the UI development".

Let's ignore the menu item and consider the language-related content of the question as it stands at the time of this Meta answer. All that is left is a request for a hypernym of configure and select.

Single word requests are much maligned as it stands. There is a checklist provided in the tag info, together with other advice about asking such questions to help keep such questions relevant to the community's charter, but these guidelines are often ignored.

There's no discussion about the sense of each term or what nuance the hypernym should elicit, and there's no sample sentence or linguistic context in which the term should fit. This is a common failing of 'naming' questions - the lack of an English language context.

If the question had followed the guidelines of the SWR checklist, it might have clarified why configure and select should have a meaningful hypernym and highlighted the point(s) that would have interested "linguists, etymologists, [or] serious English language enthusiasts".

This question asks whether "clear" or "reset" works better within the phrase "clear/reset unsuccessful attempts" and invites short alternatives that express the idea "sets the count of unsuccessful login attempts to zero".

Although the question uses specialised technical terms (e.g. using clear to mean "set to zero"), there is significantly more English language content to this question than to the previous question. I think this question would require a lot more justification for someone to vote to close it.

Summary Whether a naming question is on-topic depends heavily on whether the question justifies itself as being about the English language in a 'language' context, as opposed to merely deploying English terms as labels.

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    I think that UI-wording questions is more like proofreading or writing advice and that's why people think of them as closable. I think question about word nuance comparison are totally on topic (in fact the best kind of question here) and having motivation from a UI situation is totally OK, but a bald 'What should word should I use here?' is a bad SE question. – Mitch Aug 19 '18 at 16:52
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    Your analysis of the two example questions accords with my experience/judgment. I'm willing to entertain even variable-naming questions if the OP can clearly articulate what they're looking for in an English-usage context, including an example sentence or two and what words are close-but-not-quite-right (and why). But if the main criterion seems to be "I'll know it when I see it" (especially after prompting for more detail) or something like "can only be 5 characters long and can't start with B because I already have one of those" then I'll vote to close. – 1006a Aug 19 '18 at 18:40
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    Variable naming-question. – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '18 at 22:29
  • @AndrewLeach That question is like the clear/reset example. It contemplates using the requested term in a natural language context even though the goal is to name a variable. – Lawrence Aug 19 '18 at 23:12
  • (@AndrewLeach Thanks for the link, by the way.) – Lawrence Aug 20 '18 at 3:32
  • I don't understand your point 2. You say, more or less, that a program works the same way if you rename the variables, which is fine. But then you seem to be saying that a user interface works the same way if you rename the elements, which isn't true at all. A user interface where you click a button labelled "delete" to delete something is completely different from one where you click "I like puppies" to delete something. – David Richerby Aug 29 '18 at 15:23
  • @DavidRicherby Actually, buttons can be freely renamed without changing the on-click behaviour. In this sense, they are similar to variables. Here’s an equivalent to your button example, for variables: rename is_delete to likes_puppies. The greater point, though, is the elaboration in the paragraph starting with “On #2”. – Lawrence Aug 29 '18 at 15:38
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    When you say "buttons can be renamed", are you referring to the programming-language variable that stores the button data, or to the label written on the button? I mean, I agree in both cases, but the text written on the button has a huge impact on the user's perception, so if you're suggesting that the text on the button is as irrelevant as the name given to a variable, I strongly disagree. – David Richerby Aug 29 '18 at 15:46
  • @DavidRicherby Thanks for clarifying. I’m referring to the text. Variable names are as important to the programmer (the main user of those names) as UI labels are to their users, so I’m not suggesting that the choice of name is unimportant. I’m saying that (1) they are equivalent in terms of EL&U’s ‘naming’ policy; and (2) UI has a language component beyond the (linear? linguistic?) English that EL&U is about. – Lawrence Aug 29 '18 at 22:52

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