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Problem

A colleague is designing an application and wants to decide what to write in the return/enter key.

Research

In the Macbook keyboard both terms are present (return and enter).

Macbook Keyboard

Question

My question is: which term is the most used US English word for such operation?

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    It's called Control Carriage Return (CCR), as any 1960s communications geek can tell you. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '16 at 22:14
  • Right here in River City, as the musical says, when I hit the "return key" to make a paragraph, what actually happens is that I post an incomplete comment or answer. (It is missing the paragraph I wanted to add.) I still think it's unreasonable not to honor the usual meanings of keystrokes, but at least "Enter" gives the user a hint that something – Airymouse Nov 15 '16 at 17:43
  • unusual or untoward might happen.(I thought I should test my assertion before I added my comment.) – Airymouse Nov 15 '16 at 17:44
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You question suggests that you are unaware that the ‘return’ and ‘enter’ keys are not necessarily one and the same, although they are on the Mac keyboard you show. It is not a question of US English v. British English (we Brits don’t make computers any more) but more of your audience: Mac v PC, or whether you are describing a specific effect to a technical audience. You can read about it in this Wikipedia article, and make your own decision.

That said, it would appear from googling that ‘Enter’ is most common, as it is apparently the preferred PC/Windows usage (I wouldn’t know from personal experience as I’m also a Mac user), and as your Mac keyboard has both terms (my laptop has neither) I’d suggest you use that (perhaps with ‘Return’ in parentheses if style allows).

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The real question is whether your audience is technically inclined or not.

A layperson will almost always know what you mean when you say "Press the Enter key", but "Return" is, for most, an unfamiliar term. It would be appropriate in, say, a textbook, but not necessarily in user directions, unless you were also going to include "Enter" as well, as is the case on Mac keyboards like you have shown.

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    "Return" would be quite familiar to anyone who learned to type on an electric typewriter. "Carriage return", if they learned on a manual typewriter. – Hot Licks Nov 15 '16 at 13:21
  • True. However, the Enter/Return key on your keyboard doesn't just perform a carriage return (i.e. resetting the cursor position to the beginning of the line), it also sets you on a new line with a line feed. You'll see this combination abbreviated often to CRLF. – Rome_Leader Nov 15 '16 at 13:41
  • @Rome_Leader: Except that the Enter key only does a 'Return' or 'CRLF' action if you're in an environment (like posting an answer here) where that'ss what it's defined to do. If you're writing a comment, Enter leaves the comment and posts the comment. In a command-line environment, it executes whatever command you've typed, and so on. FWIW, the 4 keyboards I have in view are all labeled 'Enter'. – jamesqf Nov 15 '16 at 17:26
  • @Rome_Leader Depending on your OS and application, that is. Some text editors even allow you to choose whether line breaks in any given file should be CR, LF, or both; and generally hitting the enter/return key will then input the appropriate character(s). Plus on some keyboards/OSes enter and return are separate keys. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '16 at 21:53
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - The Enter key on pretty much any computer keyboard transmits only the "carriage return" character code. The operating system or active program may then interpret that as calling for both CR and LF actions, but that's a programming decision, not something the physical keyboard does. – Hot Licks Nov 15 '16 at 22:56
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As David's answer indicates, the split between Enter and Return reflects a longtime difference in labeling between IBM/Microsoft nomenclature (Enter) and Apple nomenclature (Return). Although the MacBook keyboard you photographed includes both return and (in smaller letters) enter as labels on the key in question, my iMac keyboard from 2014 includes only the label return.

I worked for many years at a PC magazine, where we consistently identified the key as Enter (as IBM-compatible computer keyboards did), and for several years at a Mac magazine, where we consistently identified the key as Return (as most Apple products did, albeit in lowercase). The fact that your MacBook even acknowledges that enter is a legitimate alternative label for return suggests that Apple may be facing the reality that Enter is the more widely recognized label for the key—because PCs are still far more common than Macs.

I think that a complete switch from Return to Enter on Apple keyboards is still unlikely, even in the post–Steve Jobs era, because it would raise the prospect of Apple's having to deal with the knottier issue of reconciling the key labels in the lower left corner of the keyboard with their PC equivalents and remapping various keystroke combinations—steps that many longtime Apple users (I imagine) would vigorously oppose. Few things reinforce Apple users' prejudice against PCs (and PC users' prejudice against Macs) like having to get used to so many keys having the wrong labels, so many controls being in the wrong place, and so many keystroke combinations being needlessly different.

In any case, to answer your question, Enter is the label more familiar in U.S. English (and indeed throughout the English speaking world). But there is nothing wrong with saying, on first occurrence of an instruction, something along the lines of "...and then press Enter (or on a Mac, Return)," and thereafter simply "...and then press Enter."

  • That's an interesting supposition, but it may ignore some of the relevant history of the keyboard. On an electric typewriter, which predated the computer keyboard by decades and from which the computer derived its layout, the key was always called the "return" key because hitting it would perform the same function that the manual return lever used to: restore the carriage (as in "carriage return") to its beginning-of-the-line position. – Robusto Nov 15 '16 at 21:48
  • (cont.) This would account for the near absence in the corpus of "hit the enter key" until around 1980 in favor of "hit the return key." – Robusto Nov 15 '16 at 21:49
  • @Robusto: Yes, there is no doubt that the Return label refers to the carriage return of manual typewriters; and it clearly was subsequently adopted as a key label on IBM Selectric and other electric typewriters (which automated the carriage return but still physically performed it). I don't know the history of how Enter emerged as a keyboard label between the 1970s and 1995 (when I began working at computer magazines), but I do know that the Microsoft/Apple split in labeling was already in place at that point. – Sven Yargs Nov 15 '16 at 22:09
  • Even more interesting is the fact that the characters that get "entered" on a Windows machine are CR and LF, for "carriage return" and "line feed" ... the two actions performed by the manual lever. – Robusto Nov 15 '16 at 22:14
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    @SvenYargs Don't forget that there were a lot of applications that preceded word processing (particularly WYSIWIG word processing) and that a lot of these were implemented on IBM mainframe kit. If you were using a green screen form-based program on a dumb terminal the enter key didn't have anything to do with line feeds or carriage returns in the majority of cases, it was the way you submitted the screen of information to the mainframe for processing. I think this is where the term 'enter' came from. Apple, always having made personal computers, never had a mainframe background. – BoldBen Nov 15 '16 at 22:59

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