Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

November 2000

Abusus non tollit usum

I have a funny relationship with words. On the one hand, I'm a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. This is the user interface designer in me coming out: you shouldn't force people to use your program in a certain way, but observe them and make your program fit how they work. Language is a constantly changing and evolving thing: if people didn't make mistakes that end up changing the language, languages wouldn't evolve. I like a dictionary to tell me how the language is used, not how some self-appointed arbiter thinks it should be used. I get really irritated by people who insist that 'data' is a plural noun, and claim that you have to say "the data are useless", based on the idea that 'data' comes originally from Latin, where it was the plural of 'datum'. Yet the same people say "my agenda is full", or "I got a visa for my trip", or "Let's go to a couple of museums", even though 'agenda' was the plural of 'agendum', 'visa' the plural of 'visum', and the plural of 'museum' was 'musea'. But English isn't Latin.

On the other hand, I confess I wince when people use words in the wrong way. I recently read a document where the author had used the word 'proxy' to mean 'alias'. Similarly I dislike our term 'the desktop metaphor': it's not a metaphor, it's an analogy, and furthermore, it's not an analogy with the desktop, but with the office (I don't know about you, but I don't keep my waste-paper basket on my desktop).

A few issues ago (June 1999) Don Norman complained about the widespread misuse of the term 'affordance', which he had introduced to the user interface world in his book The Psychology of Everyday Things. In his article he says:

"Far too often I hear graphic designers claim that they have added an affordance to the screen design when they have done nothing of the sort. Usually they mean that some graphical depiction suggests to the user that some action is possible. This is not affordance, either real or perceived. Honest it isn't. It is a symbolic communication, one that works only if it follows a convention understood by the user."

Well, this got me thinking. Should I get upset about this misuse? Or should I observe that people have started using the word in this way, and therefore accept that they had a need for such a word? After all (if I understand it right) in the virtual world of the computer program there are no affordances possible, in the original sense of the word, so there's no confusion. Or should I just shrug and accept that people just use words wrong, and as long as we understand, it's OK?

It seems to me that we have three options:

  1. Find an existing word that properly conveys what is meant when people misuse 'affordance'. 'Cue', maybe, or 'clue'.
  2. Invent a new word for the new meaning. What about 'suggestance'?
  3. Shrug.

Let's fix 'Desktop metaphor' first though.

First published in ACM/Interactions, November 2000

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