Preferred spellings in technical writing

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

16 August 2016

Here’s a quick round-up of a poll I ran about technical writers’ preferences for common computing terms.

I write for a predominantly British audience in UK English, but I sometimes have to use computing terms, which are usually written in American English (probably because of style guides such as the Microsoft Manual of Style). That can lead to an odd mixing of styles.

Recently, I’ve noticed more UK spellings creeping into technical communications about computing, and I wanted to get a feel for what others thought about this.

So, I created a doopoll to ask for 5 spelling preferences from my colleagues in the ISTC, PCN and SfEP. I also asked for responses from members of a couple of technical writing groups on LinkedIn. You can see a snapshot of the results below (or you could look at the live poll results).

I wasn’t expecting more than a couple of dozen responses, so I was a little surprised that more than 250 people chipped in. There’s not enough data here for anyone to make bold claims about the results, but I think it makes for interesting reading all the same. Interesting is relative, of course!

Ready for the results?

Question 1/5: dialogue boxes vs dialog boxes

This first question divided opinion the most. I assumed that dialog (US style) would prevail over dialogue (UK style), but it seems the UK form is more popular.

In computing, we usually refer to dialog boxes when writing about the windows that pop up and ask the user for input.

dialogue boxes vs dialog boxes

Question 2/5: programmes vs programs

There’s a clearer result here. Programmes are what you watch on TV and what you read at the theatre. Programs are what you use on your computer.

I think applications is becoming a more common term now, so perhaps we won’t write programs so much in the future.

programmes vs programs

Question 3/5: colour vs color

No surprise here that the UK spelling of colour was so popular, and I’d use this form in general technical writing.

In Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) – the style rules that determine how websites look – there’s a property name called color. If you don’t spell it like that, it won’t work. So color does have a place in some contexts, even for British authors.

colour vs color

Question 4/5: Internet vs internet

It used to make sense to capitalise this term when talking about the worldwide network of online computers, because the lowercase form would refer to smaller, more limited networks. But no one makes that distinction any more, and so writing Internet now seems a little pompous.

Internet vs internet

Associated Press (AP) usually take a while to adopt new trends, and even their style is now to write internet. Pay attention, all you capitalisers:

Question 5/5: email vs e-mail

I used to prefer e-mail, but the term is so widely used that it isn’t necessary to hyphenate it any more. This can lead to a bit of inconsistency when writing unusual ‘e-’ terms: ‘The competition email address is inside the e-invite.’ These are the sorts of issues that editors and proofreaders often wrestle with (and that most other people don’t care about).

email vs e-mail

Over to you

What do you think of the results? Do any of them surprise you? And are there any other spellings you’d like to know about? Leave a comment below or catch up with me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.


Be part of Espresso+

The community for freelancers & small business owners.

119 recommendations
for John

John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

Follow me on

Share on
social media