There is no life after delete

The other day, I read "Right-click the user’s name in the user list and select Remove. Note that the user will not be deleted from the user database." Remove, delete – what was the difference, I was wondering. When should we use delete and when remove in technical writing?

And do our readers always know the difference? If I remove users from the user list, don’t I also delete them?

That’s correct. As you can see, it’s a bit complicated.

Let’s start at the beginning. Delete means to erase something, usually for good. Remove means that we "move or take something away from a place, change the location, position, or residence of ... ." The latter is a definition I found in Merriam Webster.

Let's take a look at the following sentence: "Remove the cork from the bottle." When I pull the cork from the bottle, the cork is still there (most of the time, it stays on my corkscrew until I open the next bottle). I do not erase the cork by pulling it or by throwing it in the trash. I am not sure if this comparison works, but it helps me to remember the difference between the two verbs.

Fotolia Korkenzieher 97439697 XS© poplasen -
If I remove users from the list, like in the example above, I get rid of them in that list. Outside the list, the users still exist in the user database. Only when I decide to delete the users from the user database, will they be gone for good.

Here is another example: When you start Windows Explorer and right-click a file in your documents, a dialog opens. Somewhere near the bottom, you see Delete. Click and confirm and your file will be moved to the trash. When you empty the trash, the file is gone.

If you make that right-click in your Favorites, you see Remove instead. When you click it, you will remove the reference to your file. The file will continue to exist on your computer or in your network.

Here is our recommendation:

  • If the object will continue to exist outside the directory, use remove. The object won’t be deleted but only the reference to it.
  • If the object, and not the reference to it, will be erased, use delete. Delete means for good. There is no life after delete. (Our system administrator would disagree, but it sounds pretty good.)

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