In tech journalism, you rarely ‘allow’. You probably ‘enable’.

One of my pet peeves in journalism is the use of the words ‘enable’ and ‘allow’. As a rule of thumb (with some very rare exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute), whenever you are writing ‘allow’, you probably mean ‘enable’.

Spraycans enable you to graffiti walls. Criminal damage laws generally disallow it. Local property owners may allow you to paint the walls.

Let’s start with an example from Techcrunch:

They can then create a bike listing by pulling existing bike and ride history from their Strava account. This allows potential buyers to see how long the owner has had the bike.

This problem is that ‘allow’ is a statement of permission, and buyers were always legally allowed to see how long an owner has a bike. Instead, this is an example of technology enabling a particular behaviour.

It’s confusing as well, because ‘enabling’ can mean ‘allowing’, just not the other way around.

Another example, also from TechCrunch, explains why the usage is confusing, when the two meanings could infer different things

The app allows you to browse, open and share the files after the transfer is complete.

Given that we’re talking about computer systems, permissions are actually a part of the systems we’re talking about, and in the above example, it’s possible that the app adjusts the permissions on a device, much like jailbreaking does, or if you upgrade from one software plan to a more advanced plan.

If something is possible on a computer system (say, delete a file), but you don’t have permissions to do that action, it may be correct to use the word allow. “SUDO allows you to delete files you couldn’t otherwise delete”, for example, would be correct.

So, from the above example, it’s unclear whether the app changes the device permissions (i.e. allowed the behaviour ), or made new functionality available to the user (i.e. enabled the behaviour), and it’s only from context that you’d understand that we’re talking about new functionality and that the wrong word is used.

When to use ‘allow’

‘Allow’ is about permissions or grants of rights, so if there’s a change in laws, for example, it may be suitable to use ‘allowed’.

To wit, an example from CNN News:

The Portland, Oregon, airport will now allow you to fly with [medical marijuana] in-state, provided you are carrying the legal amount.

This makes sense, as we’re talking in a change in the law: You were always enabled to take weed on a plane (i.e. you could put it in your bag and smuggle it), you just weren’t allowed to.

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Writer, startup pitch coach, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.

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Haje Jan Kamps

Haje Jan Kamps

Writer, startup pitch coach, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.