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I'm updating some software documentation and referring to the cd command in a shell/commandline. I'm starting with the assumption that all of the following are correct (but please do validate this assumption):

  1. Singular form: "Use the cd command to change to a new working directory."
  2. Plural form: "Use the cd command to change between directories."
  3. Singular form: "Use the cd command to change from one directory to another."

Now I need to shorten it as much as possible for a summary/title. Which of the following would be considered correct vs. incorrect?

  1. "Use cd to change directory."
  2. "Use cd to change the directory."
  3. "Use cd to change directories."

Am I right that #1 is suboptimal (or incorrect) while #2 and #3 are correct?

Also complicating things, of course, is that the cd command (and older chdir version) is commonly considered shorthand for "Change Directory" rather than "Change Directories".

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    A complete and nuanced answer to this question should reference the relevant transitive senses involving plural-vs-singular objects given by the paywalled OED entry for the verb change.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 6 at 14:00
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    I find it interesting that the singular sounds reasonably idiomatic in this particular case, but with other words would be obviously wrong. If spill something on yourself, you'd say "I need to change shirts"; you'd never say "I need to change shirt". Commented Jun 6 at 14:48
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    NGrams prefers "change directory" but "change jobs" and "change names", and it's a dead heat for "change address(es)". Although it might depend on whether the subject is singular or plural. Till we get an authoritative answer, my suggestion would be either is fine.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 6 at 15:00
  • @NuclearHoagie Interesting - At first "change directory" sounded right to me, and that's what I originally wrote, but only a few seconds later I reconsidered. Now it just sounds wrong to me (but that's why I'm asking). And yes, the "shirt" example is great. In that case, of course, you could also say "change my shirt" but never just "change shirt". Very similar concept. Commented Jun 6 at 15:05
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    Educate, don't obfuscate: Use cd to “change directory” Commented Jun 7 at 2:37

3 Answers 3

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It can be seen, that this concept is significant since roughly the 1980's.

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The singular is preferred for the base form, but in the case of the past form and the present participle form, the opposite is true. Nevertheless, there is not too big a difference between the two options, in all cases.

Changing director(y)(ies) involves simply the act of activating a new directory while the one previously used is rendered inactive. "Changing directories" is therefore not unlike the process of shifting gear(s). For this latter process, the plurals largely dominate, but there is an important amount of literature from the past century and the present one century in which the singular is used (he shifted gear). The plural is however the largely dominating form (he shifted gears), as the following ngrams show.

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Here is now the case of "changed owner(s)"; the singular is not used at all.

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Other similar cases, such as "change shirts", show that the singular is sometimes not used at all.

On the whole, the plural is preferrable or the only choice; there is however the modern use of the singular for "change directory" and "shift gear".

From a logical point of view a singular is preferrable since the action of changing is one of replacing one thing by another; this replacing is carried out on only one of the two: only one directory is being replaced, only one gear is being replaced, only one owner is being replaced, etc. This becomes obvious when the item is determined by means of the definite article (changed the directory, shifted the gear, the owner was changed, changing the shirt).

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If you use a preposition (e.g. "to"), it should be followed by a singular "directory". But without a preposition, it can be either singular or plural. Google Ngram shows that singular is a more common now, although it was the other way around in the 1990's.

Grammatically, it's analogous to saying "change homes" when you move, or "change countries" when you emigrate.

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Since it is computereeze, normal English doesn't necessarily apply. Directory was the original name, until Microsoft started calling it Folder.

Since a Directory is actually a Directory Tree (unless its a directory in the root), it is a singular word.

If someone said "I have this file in 4 directories", it would almost certainly mean that you have the same file in 4 different directories (paths or folders).

It sounds normal to say "changing directories". I guess, it is because you are changing from one directory to another. Like "changing stations" or "changing cars".

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