I'm creating a series of labels for a row of buttons within a software application. Most of the labels are noun-verb pairs, such as "Analyze Route."

It just occurred to my team and me that we were "mixed mode" in the noun-verb vs verb-noun ordering for these labels. Example:

  • Button 1: "Analyze Route"
  • Button 2: "Alert Mute"

I have two questions...

  1. Is there a grammar or usage rule that dictates which ordering is appropriate for labeling?
  2. I argued that since it was a label for a button and not a command, the appropriate order was "noun-verb" - so, "Alert Mute" and "Route Analyze" - because of semantics. (This is an alert mute... not a mute alert.) Is this at all valid?

Thanks in advance!

  • 3
    Button 2 seems at least ambiguous, since "alert" and "mute" can be both nouns and verbs. Does the button mute an alert, or alert a mute setting? – TaliesinMerlin Apr 4 '19 at 20:55
  • This might be better-suited to User Experience, as the rules of ordinary spoken or written English do not necessarily apply in specialized contexts such as buttons in an app. – choster Apr 4 '19 at 21:26
  • @TaliesinMerlin - the the button mutes an alert. – wahwahwah Apr 4 '19 at 21:29
  • @choster - I'm not really concerned with the user experience aspect. I was curious if there was an English-language rule for labeling that I wasn't familiar with. I could have used an example that wasn't software related - if you catch my drift. – wahwahwah Apr 4 '19 at 21:36
  1. For an idea of the usage rule, look at the buttons on this very website: "Ask Question", "Post Your Answer", "Watch a tag". I just looked at Amazon and found "Add to Cart", "See Details", "See more answered questions", "Write a customer review". All of these buttons follow the normal order of an English phrase.

  2. Linguists call English a "subject-verb-object" language because the typical order of words in a sentence is subject, followed by verb followed by object: I [subject] type [verb] a sentence [object]. It is unusual in English for objects to precede verbs. So, when we read a phrase that appears to have a noun preceding a verb, it's unlikely that we'll analyze that as object-verb; much more likely, we'll analyze the phrase as an attributive noun modifying a noun, or possibly an adverbial noun and a verb.

If I read "route analyze" I would expect "route" to function as an adverb. I would expect this button to perform a "route analysis" and I'd probably expect that some other kinds of analyses would be possible, e.g. "Memory Analyze."

But because we're so accustomed to verb-object, we'll often try to fit any phrase we see into that pattern. Thus, "alert mute" is first read as "send an alert to the mute." If this doesn't make sense, the subsequent analysis is likely to be "a mute that is alert" (adjective-noun) and only after that doesn't make sense, "a mute for alerts" (attributive-noun-noun).


Go verb first. (Usually.)

Buttons do not follow usual expectations of writing, but there are a few basic guidelines that foster good button design. Here I'm going to paraphrase two bits of advice from UX Booth that I use when teaching visual rhetoric:

  • No friction: the label should be quickly understood
  • Verb first: begin with the verb. A button does something. The verb describes the action.

Have I seen buttons that are noun first? Yes. Your keyboard likely has a caps lock key, where the verb (lock) comes second. However, most labeled keys are either verbs or can be used as verbs (delete! backspace! enter! page up! escape!). I'd only put the verb second if I have a great reason to do it and if it causes no misunderstandings.

Otherwise, and especially in situations where your users have not acclimated to a standard format, the verb gives users a clue for what it does. The noun, as necessary, names what that verb affects. So:

  • Analyze Route (the button analyzes something. what? a route. good.)
  • Alert Mute (the button alerts something. what? a mute. that can't be right.)
  • Mute Alert (the button mutes something. what? an alert. great.)

As a general guide (again going back to the article), imagine you're asking, "What do I want to do?" The answer is, "I want to ______." Analyze the route, mute the alert. The verb comes first. If it helps you get over the sense you're commanding your readers, view it as a bare infinitive (an infinitive lacking "to") following an implied "I want to" rather than a verb in the imperative mood. In any case, that verb will still tend to make the function of your button clearer. To drive this point home one more time, here's another article on UX design in buttons:

Write button labels that clearly explain what each button does. Ideally, the button’s label should clearly describe its action.

The verb is the action. Now I'm going to click "Post Your Answer."

  • Are you sure "lock" in "caps lock" is a verb? It seems likely that it's a noun. It seems like most keys are named with verbs, but not all of them. Sure home and end are verbs, but it would be a stretch to imagine the home key as homing in on the beginning :) Likewise, on a Mac keyboard, I don't expect the "option" key to put my computer up for sale, or for the "function" key make my computer start working. "Function, damn you!" – Juhasz Apr 4 '19 at 21:34
  • The shift lock mechanically locked a typewriter's keys into a single position. "Lock" could also be read as a noun, but "lock" does describe the action being performed, either literally or figuratively (as modern caps lock does). – TaliesinMerlin Apr 4 '19 at 22:14

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