If the writer means to say that an error message should 'appear' can he phrase the sentence as 'When user clicks the button, an error message should display' or is it more correct to say 'When user clicks the button, an error message should BE displayed'?

English is not my native language and I don't know grammar much but I have a feeling that first sentence is wrong i.e. error message should display because 'display' is an action (verb) that has to be performed on an object. I've never seen the use of word display like this.

Can someone please point out to an article which supports the argument that we can not say 'error message should display' and it should rather be 'should be displayed'? provided my understanding is right. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

  • 5
    "Error message should display" is a so-called middle construction. I am not posting this as an answer because I'm not sure how (un)common it is with this particular verb, but generally speaking it is perfectly grammatical.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 16:45

4 Answers 4


Reg is right that the middle construction "the message should display" is grammatical and would be understood; but it is not how "display" is usually used in English.

"Display" is normally transitive, though the subject can be either the person or thing that causes the message to appear ("the program displays a message") or the surface or medium on which the message appears ("The screen was displaying a warning message").

The only intransitive use I can think of is the special sense of birds or animals showing some prominent feature as part of combat or mating rituals: we can say "The cock displayed to the hen".


In short, you are correct. Display is a transitive verb (it requires an object) and the object here is the error message.

The form an error message should be displayed is an example of the passive voice. It's useful here because you want the focus of the sentence on the object and the passive voice allows you to omit the subject completely, or link it with a preposition, for example an error message should be displayedby the program

The active alternative would be the program should display an error message.


According to The Free Dictionary,

display v.intr. Computer Science To provide information or graphics on a screen: a personal computer that displays and prints.

This appears to be the use case you're referring to, so I would feel no guilt about using it that way. In fact, I hear it used that way all the time in UI work: "A popup dialog will display ..."

  • The definition from the dictionary sounds to me like an absolute use of the transitive sense of display (i.e. it is implicitly understood that the PC displays something). In the UI case it is different - as RegDwight puts it, "middle": the meaning is that something will display the popup. So though I don't disagree that the usage you quote is heard a lot, to me it comes across as jargon, rather than falling under that dictionary definition... (Personally I prefer to avoid the issue entirely and say "appear" ;-)
    – psmears
    Commented Mar 18, 2011 at 8:29

If you're asking yourself whether an error message should display or be displayed, a good question to ask yourself next is: what should the error message display? Since it's obvious what an error message would be displaying, "be displayed" is the one you want.

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