I just asked a question on User Experience SE, involving the word delete. This English question is based on that UX question, so its motive can be understood better by reading both questions.

It seems to me that the word delete has a twofold meaning in English. I found this on Wiktionary:

  1. To remove, get rid of or erase, especially written or printed material, or data on a computer.
  2. (computing) To hide, conceal

#1 seems to suggest that the information is permanently destroyed, while #2 suggests the data is only concealed.

How do strict definitions of the word in computing and non-computing contexts differ from the way the general public typically understands the word?

How is the word typically understood by common, non-technical people, in a personal computing context?

As for the message quoted on UX SE, if anyone has a suggestion for it, I encourage them to head over there and post it. :)

  • 4
    Yes, good question:meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/7996/…
    – user66974
    May 18, 2016 at 6:30
  • Most computer operations are make-believe. The "delete" command does remove, but only the address to the data and not the data itself. However, the effect is to release the storage space for new data and when such new data replaces the "deleted" data, the latter gets physically over-written and is lost. Summarily, there's no issue of different meanings only one of usage. The dictionary's separation is for reader convenience -- it does not mean a contradiction/ variance. HTH.
    – Kris
    May 18, 2016 at 6:51
  • cf. above, this question rightly belongs on User Experience where it's originally asked, not on ELU.
    – Kris
    May 18, 2016 at 6:52
  • @Kris I think there's an overlap between the two sites. I figured I'd find more expertise regarding the language aspects here. Also, I'm asking for different things in each question.
    – Fiksdal
    May 18, 2016 at 6:58
  • 3
    I disagree with the #2 definition. Although hiding of information often happens on deletion in the context of operating systems, I think this is an implementation detail, not part of the proper semantics of the word. The reverse process is called recovery (or undelete), not show. It's akin to writing on a piece of paper, erasing the pencil mark, then using the remaining indentations to recover the original word - the intention is permanent removal, even though retrieval methods exist. Hiding and concealment are quite different semantically from deletion.
    – Lawrence
    May 18, 2016 at 13:36

2 Answers 2


For some reason the idea of deleting in computing is based on the notion that a text or else can be later recovered in case of need. That is a very different concept from the more common notion we have of deleting something, that is destroy something so that it cannot be recovered.

  • In general, delete or remove refers to the act of eliminating a file, text, or other object from the computer hard drive or other media. Files deleted in Microsoft Windows are sent to the Recycling Bin. On Apple computers, deleted files are sent to the Trash. In most operating systems, when files are deleted, they are only marked as such, but still exist on the hard drive until they are overwritten by other data. This condition is what makes data recovery possible.


  • +1. No wonder people get confused.
    – Fiksdal
    May 18, 2016 at 6:56
  • +1 Yes, this "soft delete" vs "hard delete" on websites is something I only recently discovered myself (about a year or more so)
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 18, 2016 at 7:04
  • Deleting a file on a computer is akin to erasing the words "DO NOT ERASE!!" from a whiteboard. It just gives the system the permission to actually delete it should it want to. May 18, 2016 at 12:40

I think the view that the non-computer use of delete means obliterate completely with no possibility of reinstatement is not supported by most definitions

  1. Remove or obliterate (written or printed matter), especially by drawing a line through it or marking it with a delete sign: the passage was deleted

    1.1 (usually be deleted) Remove (data) from a computer’s memory.

    1.2 (be deleted) Genetics (Of a section of genetic code, or its product) be lost or excised from a nucleic acid or protein sequence: if one important gene is deleted from an animal’s DNA, other genes can stand in

    1.3 Remove (a product, especially a recording) from the catalog of those available for purchase: their EMI release has already been deleted

Oxford Dictionaries Online

In the initial definition,the use of strikethrough or a symbol to show deletion does not permanently or completely negate the deleted material. It merely says don't use at this time.

The computing definition says remove from memory, but computers have many types and locations for memory, and deletion from one type or area does not preclude retention elsewhere.

The genetic delete does seem (to this non-scientist) as fairly permanent.

the removal of an item from a catalog surely does not preclude the inclusion at some later date.

Definitions in other sources are similar

1a. To cancel, strike out, or make impossible to be perceived: deleted the expletives from the transcript with a marker.

b. To remove from a document or record: deleted the names from the computer file. See Synonyms at erase.

  1. To remove (a file, for example) from a hard drive or other storage medium.

American Heritage Dictionary

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.