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I’m editing a colleague who habitually uses phrases like:

The password enables users to log in.

This sounds wrong to me, and I want to suggest alternatives like:

The password allows users to log in.

After some cursory research, I think the problem here is me, not the pattern in question. Are “enables” and “allows” interchangeable, here?

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    They are sometimes equivalent. A guard dog allows you to enter a house, sounds more plausible than the guard dog enabling your entry, unless you had somehow “provided” the dog to the homeowner.
    – user205876
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 23:55
  • Ok, so, as @HideMe says below -- the difference is about granting permission (allows) vs bestowing new abilities (enables). Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 0:14

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Enables implies that this uncovers a new ability for the user to log in.

Using a different wording:

The password gives users the ability to login.

Whereas allows implies that the user has been given the permission to login as if they weren't allowed before.

Attempting to put this into a different wording:

The password gives users permission to login

This is erroneous as the permission may in this case already be granted and they simply haven't had the ability to login with their own credentials until now.

A good way to remember how this would work is if you split the word 'enable' into two - 'en' and 'able'. Using this logic, you quickly remind yourself that you're making someone able to do something.

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  • But gramatically, they're identical. They just carry different meanings? (And in the example, it sounds like “enables” better describes what passwords do?) Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 0:13
  • Grammatically yes, they're identical. But they carry different meanings. So you're right to think that the problem was within you when perceiving the phrase as erroneous. 'Enables' definitely describes the function of the user being given the password better than 'allow' would. As I've attempted to lay out in my answer. :)
    – dope
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 0:17
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"Allow" and "enable" have two different meanings. "Enable" means to provide help and assistance. Enabling has nothing to do with permission or whether something can or cannot pass through a barrier. If we change the word "password" to "guard" this will become clear: "The guard allows visitors to pass through the checkpoint." If we used "enable" then one would ask how the guard helped. Did he carry the person through the gate? Personally, I would use "allow." If you don't have a password, you can't get in.

In researching this answer, I noticed that dictionaries varied on the definition of enable. Merriam Webster has conflicting ideas. One definition is about help and assistance, while another talks about allowing something.

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  • The first sense of enable in the link you provide gives the example a hole in the fence that enabled us to watch. This is no different than a password than enables us to have access or, as you say, "whether something can or cannot pass through a barrier" Also, when you talk about "conflicting ideas," they're not conflicting. They are different senses of the same word. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 3:18
  • @JasonBassford The word "enable" has morphed into something similar to allow or give permission, but as far as I know it has always meant to provide aid. People can enable. Personally, I don't think inanimate objects can enable. This is my opinion. Dictionaries online varied in their interpretation of the word. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 3:25

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