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My intuitive understanding of the English language (I am German) would correlate with the following quotation:

The word "press" means to exert force on an object, but no motion of the object is implied.

The word "push" also means to exert force on an object, but there is an implied sense of movement of the object being pushed.

(Source from an online forum)

Therefore, "press a button" is what I consider correct English if the intention expressed is that, e.g., a human hand is lowered onto a button in order to trigger a certain mechanism.

Meanwhile, "push a button" is what I would understand as a button sitting on top of a table when a cat enters the scene and decides to shove it off the table for its own amusement.

An associate corrected me today, stating it would in fact be "push a button" or else the song "Push the Button" would be grammatically incorrect. While I do not take the Sugababes [sic!] as the standard by which I measure correct speach, it made me wonder; is there any rule that makes one of these two options incorrect or are the both of us free to anarchically make use of any of these two choices?

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    On average, all Anglophones are more likely to press a button rather than push it, but this preference is stronger in BrE than AmE. But don't over-think this one - both versions are fine. May 8, 2017 at 17:43
  • @FumbleFingers That is exactly what my recollections told me. Glad to have them confirmed.
    – WS2
    May 8, 2017 at 18:10
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    They are, afterall, called “ push buttons” not “press buttons”: amazon.com/Pushbutton-Switches/b?ie=UTF8&node=5739464011
    – Jim
    May 8, 2017 at 19:30
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    (And let's not forget that press is failing these days!)
    – Hot Licks
    May 8, 2017 at 21:41
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    Despite the overall preference for press, the metaphoric version is nearly always He certainly knows how to push my buttons (how to get me to react predictably, whether positively or negatively). May 9, 2017 at 14:30

3 Answers 3

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Either option is fine. In this case, the words are synonymous. You are thinking of the wrong definition of the word push; the right one here is:

[with obj.] press (a part of a machine or other device):
he pushed the button for the twentieth floor.
Oxford Dictionaries

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    There are cases where one is more idiomatic than the other, but there aren't any real "rules" as to how one would decide this. For instance, though "pushed" is probably most idiomatic in your quote above, it would be most idiomatic (in the US) for someone stepping into an elevator to say "Please press three for me."
    – Hot Licks
    May 8, 2017 at 21:39
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Actually, the word "press" generally implies exerting no force, because the object of the verb won't require any. Consider the buttons on a keyboard, or in an elevator - it doesn't take any strength to activate them.

As FumbleFingers mentions, native speakers use both words interchangeably when referring to buttons. In such cases we don't think of "push" as implying the need for force either.

There is a small preference for "push" if the button actually does require some slight force; for example, if it has a spring mechanism. One is also more likely to say "push" with toggle buttons (which have 'in' and 'out' states), because the button physically moves and remains depressed.

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    I do not strictly understand "force" as "great force", such as is required to push open a door. Rather, it is the application of physical effect on something. As for a toggle button, would one not rather use "switch" if it flicks between two states, if I understand you correctly?
    – Dennis
    May 8, 2017 at 18:46
  • "Switch" is usually for devices that move on a hinge (or sometimes twist, like on a lamp) - and we don't call them buttons, we call them switches. The "toggle buttons" I had in mind actually push into the material they're built on, and remain that way with some kind of spring or latch mechanism.
    – sacheie
    May 8, 2017 at 18:49
  • I see what construction you are referring to. In that case, pushing this sort of button seems suiting since it is actually "pushing down" that button... Thanks for the addition!
    – Dennis
    May 8, 2017 at 19:55
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    "Press" implies no force? Tell that to people who do "bench presses". (On second thought, that might not be such a good idea.) Nov 18, 2017 at 13:07
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    Cute joke, but we all know that's a completely different idiom for the word "press" than the OP was asking about ;)
    – sacheie
    Nov 19, 2017 at 0:48
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Press is an action where you apply force as if you are squeezing the object against something on the opposite side of the force. Push is an action where you apply force with the intention to make the object move. So, both are sometime interchangable depending on the intention of the speaker.

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