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I am currently writing an user manual for a software tool, providing step-by-step usage instructions. I am aware that pressing a button is a perfectly fine expression. However, I'm trying to find synonyms for the term.

Hitting the button came to my mind, but this is something I more or less associate with, say, hitting the answer button on a game show. That is to say, a fast, maybe almost violent motion. Is this applicable to the simple (non-violent) clicking of a mouse button?

To clarify the question in terms of platform and OS: The software is designed solely for PCs and (so far) exclusively for Microsoft Windows.

Apart from that, I'd be happy about any suggestions of further synonyms for the term, if you know any.

  • Both are correct. Take your choice. Press is more formal compared to hit. – Kris Feb 19 '14 at 9:18
  • Some, more gentle souls, may say 'touch the button'. – WS2 Feb 19 '14 at 9:29
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    I would not expect the button to do anything if I just touched it unless it is a touch panel – mplungjan Feb 19 '14 at 9:37
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    Why do you want synonyms? I think using elegant variation might make your manual harder to understand. Also of course, software users generally don't read the manual, or anything else. – bdsl Feb 19 '14 at 18:12
  • You "depress" the button. – Hot Licks Oct 13 '17 at 12:17
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When it comes to software, you always click, "hitting" and "pressing" are physical actions,but software is strictly virtual, so you always "click!" a button in a software.

You may Press or hit a key but always click a button on the software.

So in your software manual, when you are specifying physical actions, like maybe, using the keyboard, then "press" or "hit", both can be appropriate eg. press the Enter key or hit the Enter key.

But in a software I feel click or select feels most appropriate eg. click the Refresh button or Select refresh

  • Not true with some platforms. In iOS development, for example, standardization is expected, and in that case you touch. – Canis Lupus Feb 19 '14 at 20:52
  • @Jim The platform is Microsoft Windows. I edited that information into my original question. Thanks for the comment though, it's good to know. – barghest Feb 20 '14 at 7:23
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According to the Microsoft Manual of Style (4th Edition), the correct term is click.

Click: Use for commands, command buttons, option buttons, and options in a list, gallery, or palette.

Since this question specifies that the documentation is for Windows, I would consider the MS Manual of Style authoritative in this situation.

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Language lags behind technology.

I find it interesting to see that languages do not always keep pace with technological advances: for instance, you can still say

turn on the light

and

switch on the light

when the device enabling you to do so has long ceased to be something you turn or some kind of see-sawing switch, or an up-or-down switch, but a button you press, so

*press on the light

would be the appropriate verb, if we really wanted to describe what is actually happening.

  • I think it might be worth pointing out that you're thinking of the wrong meanings here. The word "switch" doesn't have anything to do with the specific see-sawing or up-and-down device you're thinking of, the word means "device for making or breaking a(n electrical) connection". So, the "button" in question is as much a "switch" as the older see-sawing and up-and-down devices. "Switching on the light" is still just as accurate and relevant as it used to be. – Shisa Feb 20 '14 at 9:21
  • I would like to add to shisha's comment, " Switch on the light " is accurate because switch can mean change or toggle, you can switch between truth or false, so by saying " switch on the light " you do not reference to the see-saw movement, but you are referring to the change of state of the light from off to on, you could say the electrical switches are called so because they toggle the state of the appliance between on or off. Eg, you may have have a washing machine with a knob control, still you switch the washing machine to rinse, spin, drain even though you actually rotate the knob. – NANDAGOPAL Feb 20 '14 at 14:36
  • @NANDAGOPAL Yup. Interestingly, the meaning "change or toggle" of the word "switch" comes from the "device for changing direction or making or breaking a connection" meaning. Which in its own turn comes directly from the German word meaning "wooden peg" which is also the mother of the word "switch" when it means "wooden wand". – Shisa Feb 21 '14 at 10:40
  • @Shisha & NANDAGOPAL: … so "switch" used to say something about the physical appearance of the device for turning on or off the light. And, logically, if we were still after some adequation between the verb and the action it describes, "press on the light" would do the job better than "switch on the light". – user58319 Feb 21 '14 at 12:14
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You could also tap a button, whether physical or virtual. Pushing would also make sense.

In some respects, all of the suggested terms are ported from a more mechanical world.

  • Click suggests the sound that a physical switch would make.
  • Hit connoted a pressure with enough force to move a mechanical key.
  • Press implies movement of the object being activated.
  • Tap also brings to mind a movement accompanied by sound.

At times, the virtual actions are paralleled by a related, but different physical action. You may press a mouse button to activate a virtual button on screen. You tap a touch screen or a virtual keyboard key to select, tick, tap, click, hit, press, or check something in the pixel world.

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For us terribly reserved Brits, I'd say "hit the button" is a more upbeat, forthright, cool way to more gently say "press the button", with hints of the US.

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