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I am American, and I always thought the difference between dialogue and dialog was one of meaning, the way Merriam-Webster has them listed:

2 entries found:

According to Merriam-Webster, dialogue means conversation, and dialog box means a window on a computer screen.

This is how I use/spell them.

However, at least some people see them as differences between British English and American English.

So my questions, I guess, are:

  • First of all, is my understanding, and Merriam-Webster's definition, correct?
  • Is dialog used with any frequency by Americans to mean conversation?
  • Is dialog not used in British English for the window on a computer screen?
  • Is there any other difference I'm not aware of, or perhaps a better explanation for the two versions?
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As a speaker of British English, I would use 'dialogue' in all contexts. –  Barrie England Feb 29 '12 at 17:08
Or you could also call a dialog box a "modal" –  Bryan Denny Feb 29 '12 at 21:42
@FumbleFingers I do not see how this is a duplicate of the question I linked to -- the questions are related, but neither the question nor answers are the same. In this case, a dictionary lists the two usages as having different meaning. In addition, you answered this question (and I upvoted your answer) -- why then ask to close it? –  NickC Feb 29 '12 at 21:45
@BryanDenny - No! Not all dialogue boxes are modal. "Modal" means that opening the dialogue box disables other windows in the application. That is, clicking on the application window outside of the dialogue box has no effect. If you've got a non-modal dialogue box, then you can interact with the application window while the dialogue box is open. Most but not all dialogue boxes are modal. –  user16269 Mar 1 '12 at 0:36

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The only real justification for seeing dialog as "American" is that (largely thanks to Noah Webster) there are many words where US spelling seems more "logical" than British.

There aren't many written instances of dialog prior its rapid uptake by software-oriented writers, but here's one from 1910 in Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association, where one might reasonably suppose the author to be perfectly literate.

I think it's just that on average people involved in technical writing are more inclined to ignore precedent and go for what seems to them the logical spelling. Consequently we see the short form much more often in computer contexts such as dialog box, leading many people to suppose there are in fact two different words involved (or at least, that the word has two different spellings dependent on context).

It seems to me usage is currently in a "transition phase", but most likely the shorter form will continue to encroach further into traditional, non-computer contexts, and will eventually be seen as standard for all contexts (but for most people, particularly Brits, this hasn't happened yet).

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I think this is true for lots of -logue/log endings. Consider: catalogue/catalog –  Jim Feb 29 '12 at 17:52
I’m American, and I can’t think of any -logue word that I would ever spell -log. After all, it’s epilogue not *epilog. Ok, it’s Analog Magazine, but that’s a trademark. Similarly, the Ten Commandments are the Decalogue. There are real words ending in -log, like antilog and waterlog. They just aren’t related to λογος. –  tchrist Feb 29 '12 at 18:04
@tchrist As an American, I always write "catalog" and "dialog". thefreedictionary.com lists "epilog" and "analog" as alternative spellings. I'm not sure when I last wrote either "epilog" or "epilogue", but I always write "analog" as do people I've worked with. The ever-popular ngram says "analog" is more common in America -- books.google.com/ngrams/…, but put's "epilog" as pretty much unheard of in Britain and rare in the US. I always write "Decalogue", but now that you mention it ... –  Jay Mar 1 '12 at 15:02
I am also American, and would spell many of those words with log. Incliuding dialog. –  GEdgar Mar 1 '12 at 15:57
@FumbleFingers You mean "tung". :-) –  Jay Mar 2 '12 at 16:08

I was surprised to discover that Americans do indeed use the dialogue spelling when talking about a conversation.

Using the American English corpus:

Ngram enter image description here

I search for "dialog with" here, because that's a word sequence that would only be used in the sense of "conversation with", and won't match "dialog box".

The graph for the British English corpus is very similar in appearance.

Historical data isn't very useful for a new concept like a dialogue box.

What we see for 2000 is:

  • Dialog box
    • American: ~0.00240%
    • British : ~0.00045%
  • Dialogue box
    • American: negligible
    • British: ~0.000050%

British people do use dialog, but usually it's when they're making concessions to American readers.

For what it's worth, my British spellchecker doesn't recognise dialog at all.

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What exactly do you think you are proving by this use of Google NGrams? Adding "with" to the terms paints a very one-sided picture. Cf. dialog,dialogue. Sorry, but I have to down-vote this answer based on this issue alone. –  Robusto Feb 29 '12 at 17:18
@Robusto I added an explanation for that choice of phrase. –  slim Feb 29 '12 at 17:28
@Robusto What do I "contend to be true" which I claim to prove with the ngram? The ngram demonstrates that "dialogue with" is common in American English -- which surprised me because I had believed that "dialog" was the American spelling in all cases. –  slim Feb 29 '12 at 17:38
Hmm, Slim is trying to manipulate Google ngrams to ignore "dialog box". I don't know any way to tell ngrams "dialog but not dialog followed by box", and apparently Slim doesn't either, so he choose a phrase likely to be primariliy used outside an IT context. I don't suppose he himself thinks it "prvoes" a more general case, but it is indicative of which spelling is preferred. i.e. seems reasonable to me. –  Jay Mar 1 '12 at 14:53
@Roberto: What false positives??? There aren't any. Take a look at this Ngram and see if that doesn't convince you. Most of the increase in "dialog" is from "dialog box" and related meanings. Possibly a few more Americans are using "dialog" for the conversation meaning these days, but it's still predominantly "dialogue". –  Peter Shor Nov 20 '12 at 13:47

OxfordDictionaries.com has a page on British and American spelling, where it has this note:

The distinctions here are not hard and fast. The spelling analogue is acceptable but not very common in American English; catalog has become the US norm, but catalogue is not uncommon; dialogue is still preferred over dialog.

Searching for dialog vs. dialogue in COCA bears this out; dialogue appears in print almost 18 times more frequently in US texts than dialog.

The Unabridged version of Merriam-Webster simply lists dialog and dialogue as being variants of each other.

I have seen both dialog box and dialogue box used in user interface specifications. I suspect that dialog is favored in both specifications and (especially) code simply because it's a couple of characters shorter.

(As you might suspect, UK texts do use dialogue box when referring to dialog boxes. Also note that ZDNet UK has a tech podcast that's called Dialogue Box.)

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Interesting insights. As a speaker of American English, the pun in Dialogue Box stands out even more. –  NickC Feb 29 '12 at 18:27
@NickC: Um, perhaps I'm just dense, but what's the pun? –  John Y Feb 29 '12 at 22:49
@John Y The podcast, like most, is a conversation between two people (dialogue), box is generic enough to fit, and/or could imply soap box. And, obviously dialog box makes sense since it's about tech. –  NickC Feb 29 '12 at 22:53

As one of the people who named the Dialogue Box video podcast - and a programmer and writer for thirty years - I'd like to confirm the thinking that went into it. As far as we were concerned, 'Dialog', like 'Program', was AmE usage for 'Dialogue', like 'Programme', in BrE. The main UK usage for the AmE spellings was in IT, which had for a long time been dominated by US software - Windows, C, Unix, Pascal et al. As the US spellings were commonplace in the literature, and encoded in the grammar and syntax of programming languages and operating systems, they were used in this context to the practical exclusion of BrE alternatives and had been since some point in the 70s. So, Dialog Box would be the 'correct' use as there was no example of the phrase outside IT.

However, there were two of us in the videos and we were British - and there was going to be an element of interaction with viewers (readers? Users?), although that never transpired. So we decided to go with what we considered a mild neologism.

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To your title question, there is no semantic difference between 'dialog' and 'dialogue'; they both mean a conversation. Specifically with 'dialog box' vs 'dialogue box', the latter is very rare.

To your specific questions:

  • yes, MW's definition is correct.
  • yes, Americans use 'dialog' to mean 'conversation' ('dialogue' seems to be more formal)
  • 'dialog box' seems to be by far the most common spelling in British English (see a questionable Ngram )
  • an explanation of the pair is a bit more involved. The '-logue' ending, coming from the Greek root for 'speech' is the source for a handful of English words: analog, catalog, dialog, epilog, monologue, prolog, travelog (plus a number of much less frequent terms). I have given these their most common current spelling in AmE; all used to be spelled with '-logue'. Just like other creations from Latin and Greek, difficult or unspoken spellings in English have been simplified over the years (e.g. 'anaesthesia' -> 'anesthesia'). Depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on, the simplification is sometimes used and sometimes not. In AmE, '-logue' seem to be in the middle of that process for some (dialog, catalog) and not at all for others ('monologue'). And for some modern coinages, even in BrE where '-logue' is more common, it is spelled much more commonly 'dialog box'.
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Tsk - American's use dialog? –  FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 18:42
@FumbleFingers: there's variation, but sorry, yes, it is very common. For the '-logue' words, as an AmE speaker/writer, I would use 'dialog' rather than 'dialogue' though sometimes depending on formality use the other, but always 'catalog'. –  Mitch Feb 29 '12 at 18:51
@Mitch Um, no: s’omething el’se appear’s to be wrong there. –  tchrist Feb 29 '12 at 19:03
Maybe he/she is referring to American greengrocers. –  user16269 Mar 1 '12 at 0:41
@FumbleFingers Captain’s Logue, stardate 2767. The incidence of analogs, archaeologs, the Decalog, demagogs, dialogs, epilogs, grammalogs, homologs, ideologs, monologs, myriologs, pedagogs, philologs, polylogs, prologs, seismologs, synagogs, telelogs, theologs, and travelogs are all much increased in these parts. I suspect a transporter malfunction. –  tchrist Nov 21 '12 at 1:16

Since most of the early computer software, especially Operating Systems like Unix, Linux, Windows etc have been developed by people working in US (though not all were Americans), much of the literature referring to Computer systems and software, have spellings that are non-standard for British English. Since, most of the documentations, and even researches still dominated by American academia and industry, atleast in volume, such spellings have persisted in most parts of the world, whether formally respected or not.

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protected by tchrist Dec 19 '12 at 18:09

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