Knowing the difference between the verb and noun or adjective constructions of common word pairings.
True enough, most readers can figure out what’s meant by Setup your booth as follows or Be sure to sign-up by Thursday. But a better-educated readership will recognize those as grammatical errors and slightly recoil. The result: They’ll think a little less of a company or organization that makes such mistakes.
How Did We Get Here?
It’s hard to pinpoint the causes for increases in grammatical errors. (Why, for example, is it suddenly hard for people to know the difference between to and too?) But I’m guessing the verb/noun/adjective confusion I’m talking about can be traced back to the early days of going online.
The engineers who ran websites told us to log in to get access to our account. And then they told us the unique word combination we used to gain that access was our login. Okay, that’s not particularly imaginative, but clear enough: Log in served as the verb phrase, while login became the new noun for our online code of entry.
But this distinction quickly broke down. As often as not, login was used as the verb. “Login by using your user ID number and a password containing at least 8 characters.”
Since then, it seems we’re having a lot of trouble understanding the difference between such terms as check in/check-in, set up/setup, sign in/sign-in, etc.
An Easy Way to Remember the Differences
As a rule of thumb, the distinctions break down (not breakdown – that’s a noun for a nervous disorder among other things) like this:
- the verb construction of all of these phrases will have a space between the words
- the noun or adjective constructions won’t have any space or will have a hyphen between the words
- the hyphen is used when the word would be hard to understand without it, but this varies.
For example, you’d “Sign up (verb) on the sign-up (adjective) sheet or “A doctor will check up (verb) on you during a check-up (noun).”
Use the Verb Tense for Website Buttons and CTAs
When you’re directing a visitor on your website to another section, you’re using a verb construction to do so. In the earliest days of the web, it was just a simple “Click here” command.
So when you use text on a button that you want them to click – or the design equivalent of it – use the verb tense, not the noun or adjective tense.
Here are several examples of the right and wrong word phrases for the verb form:
Check in, not check-in
Check out, not check-out or checkout
Check up, not check-up or checkup
Log in, not login or log-in
Log on, not logon
Look up, not lookup
Set up, not setup or set-up
Sign in, not sign-in
Sign up, not sign-up
Warning: You’ll still see a lot of button templates that get this wrong. Not long ago, I would frequently see major websites make this mistake, too. But lately more of them seemed to have figured out the difference and are using the verb form.
So maybe there’s hope.
Michael Blumfield is a copywriter and content strategist in St. Paul who’s a bit of a grammatical nitpicker, but tries not to act like it. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.