Curse Words

Cursor is an overloaded term. There are two discrete elements of modern computing that we loosely refer to as “cursors”:

  • The icon that moves around on the screen that you control with your mouse or trackpad.
  • The vertical bar that blinks in a text editing field to indicate where typed characters will appear.

For clarity, it’s best not to refer to either of these things as cursors. Instead:

  • Mouse/trackpad pointer.
  • Insertion point.

This terminology has been slightly confusing over the last week, since Apple’s surprise announcement of pointer support in iPadOS 13.4. In their marketing materials, Apple is calling pointers “cursors”. E.g, on the webpage for the refreshed iPad Pros:

The click-anywhere trackpad opens up a whole new way to work in iPadOS. It allows control of the new cursor in iPadOS, which is perfect for tasks like editing a spreadsheet, selecting text, or simply doing everything right from the trackpad.

From the Apple Newsroom announcement:

iPadOS 13.4 brings trackpad support to iPad for the first time for a more natural typing experience and added precision for tasks such as writing and selecting text, working with spreadsheets and pro workflows. Designed specifically for the touch-first experience on iPad, the cursor appears as a circle that highlights user interface elements, text fields and apps on the Home screen and Dock, giving a clear indication of what users can click on.

In neither of these cases is cursor ambiguous — in context, it’s completely clear they’re referring to the trackpad pointer. But as a general rule, it’s better to err on the side of precision, and pointer and insertion point always avoid ambiguity.

In its technical documentation, Apple is clear. In the updated Human Interface Guidelines:

Pointers (iPadOS)

iPadOS 13.4 introduces dynamic pointer effects and behaviors that enhance the experience of using a pointing device with iPad. As people use a pointing device, iPadOS automatically adapts the pointer to the current context, providing rich visual feedback and just the right level of precision needed to enhance productivity and simplify common tasks.

The iPadOS pointing system gives people an additional way to interact with apps and content — it doesn’t replace touch. Some people may continue to use touch only, while others may prefer to use the pointer or a combination of both. Let people choose how to interact with your app, and avoid condensing your interface or making changes that require them to use the pointer.

From Apple’s excellent Apple Style Guide (available free of charge in the Apple Books store):

Don’t use in describing the macOS or iOS interface; use insertion point or pointer, depending on the context. The term cursor is appropriate when you describe the VoiceOver interface and may be appropriate when you describe other interfaces and in developer materials.

“Other interfaces” would include the terminal/command-line, where the (perhaps) blinking insertion point is properly called the cursor.

When it comes to pointers, it’s worth noting the Apple Style Guide recommends getting specific:

OK in general references, but be specific whenever appropriate: arrow, crosshair, I-beam.

And, of course, the Apple Style Guide prescribes OK, never okay.