Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wax on. Wax off.

Earlier today, on an editing list, Odile Sullivan-Tarazi posed an interesting question. She wrote in part (and gave me permission to post here):
A terminology question for those of you working with software applications or websites.

Our group is looking at these sets of terms:

log on / log off

log in / log out


sign on / sign off

sign in / sign out

From your point of view, is this a valid distinction? Does it matter whether a user is working in an application that resides on her local machine, a company server, or on the Internet?

What distinction, if any, do you make between these two sets of terms, or do you see in your work being made between these two terms? Then when it comes to log on or log in, which do you think is more correct, more standard? And with sign on, sign in?
Here’s my two cents’ worth on the subject. See if you concur.

First, I vote for consistency across a company’s public interface (packaged software or Web presence). Either choose log in / log out or sign in / sign out and stick with it. (I’m not fond of the on/off variants, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) And drum into the interface designers and software developers that you log in at the login prompt. Login is not a verb. If you can accomplish just that, you’ve performed a feat.

Second, I think the choice depends on which metaphor the anticipated audience is going to find more comfortable. Log is short for logbook. Logbooks are used by navigators and commanders of vessels (sea or air); by police department property clerks; and so forth. There’s something a little stiff, professional, technical, bureaucratic about logging in and logging out. This will be part of your permanent record, as they used to tell us in elementary school. Signing in is something you do when you visit a building, go to your doctor’s office, attend a funeral. It has more of a social, personal connotation. Your counterpart wants to remember who was there that day, and maybe the record will be put in a filing cabinet somewhere, but it’s a process accessible to anyone, not just the officially designated keeper of the logbook. And finally, signing on and signing off are what broadcasters do at the beginning and end of the broadcast day. So that just seems like the wrong model altogether.

In practical terms, logging in to a network and signing in to a network are identical. But in connotative terms, I think they’re subtly different. And that’s the basis on which I’d choose. Log in to a database administration interface; sign in to a social network.


Unknown said...


I agree completely, especially with the idea that a single company should use the same log/sign in/on/out options on all its products. This makes me want to check to verify whether my employer's product sign-ons are consistent.

-dc said...

my opinion, it doesn't matter so much, but should be consistent.

Given that you "sign" the "log" (in your example) when coming in or going out, their usage would be the same.

I would argue, however, that "in" or "on" depends on the object. I would "sign in" to work, but I'm actually "logging on" to a server. (I'm attached to it, I wouldn't fit inside it.)

Put another way, you would log on to your computer, by signing in to your account. You can sign in to facebook to access your account, but after logging on to the network to get to the internet.

I used terminals attached to mainframes, back in the day. (I've programmed with punch cards - I'm that old.) And this is usually the context in which I hear these terms used.