The top 10 misused tech terms

Everyone, at some point, has known the embarrassment of using a term you think you know, only to be humbled when someone corrects you. Using the correct words for everyday technology helps ensure you're clearly understood when talking about tech. Below are some of the most commonly-misused technical terms.

1. Memory

A lot of people mistakenly use the word "memory" to refer to a computer's storage device. You may hear someone complain their laptop doesn't have enough memory to download a large movie file or video game. But technically, "memory" refers to your computer's RAM, which stores temporary data like open files and running programs.

2. Hard Drive

For decades, hard drives that stored data magnetically on spinning metal platters were the standard storage devices, holding a computer's operating system, programs, and files. Even though compact solid-state drives have replaced them in nearly every new computer, many people call SSDs "hard drives" out of habit.

3. CPU

A computer's CPU is an essential component, working alongside the system memory to carry out most of its functions. However, it is only one component out of many. People may incorrectly refer to the entire computer — particularly desktop tower computers — as the CPU.

4. Wi-Fi

It is common for people to use the word "Wi-Fi" to refer to their home internet connection — for example, "I'm switching my Wi-Fi from Xfinity to Verizon." However, your home Wi-Fi and the internet are separate networks, even if your router and modem are the same device. If your computers can see each other, share files, and print to your wireless printer but can't load websites or check your email, your Wi-Fi connection might be fine, but your internet connection is down.

5. Program, Application, App

The words "program" and "application" are often used interchangeably, and in most cases, that's acceptable. The word "program" is the broader term that covers any executable file that performs a set of instructions. The word "application" is narrower, referring to a program that helps a user do a task. "App," meanwhile, is just a shortening of the word "application" and is often used for smartphone and tablet applications, as well as computer applications installed through a central app store.

All applications are programs, but not every program is an application. For example, a word processor is an application that allows you to write a document through its user interface. Your operating system runs many small programs in the background that manage system memory, network connections, file systems, and other system-level functions.

6. Mouse

A computer mouse is an input device. The arrow on the screen that moves as you move the mouse is the cursor (or pointer). In other words, you don't move the mouse on the screen – you move the cursor. You can also control the cursor with a trackpad, or another input device.

7. Cut & Copy

Both the "cut" and "copy" commands take whatever you have selected and put it in the system clipboard, but the two words have one significant difference. Cutting something removes it from its original spot, like cutting something out of a page with scissors. Once you cut the content, it disappears until you paste it somewhere. Copying something leaves it in place, adding a duplicate version to the clipboard.

Cut something when you want to move it and copy something when you want to duplicate it somewhere else. Mixing up the two actions and accidentally cutting when you mean to copy could lead to lost work if you overwrite the clipboard's contents.

8. Download

Another commonly-misused term is "download." Many people use it as a synonym for "install" — for example, "Before I can open that file, I need to download File Viewer Plus to my computer." First, you download it — but then you also need to install it in a separate step. These two steps have been muddied by smartphone-style app stores on macOS and Windows, which allow you to download and install an application in one step.

9. Hacked

Getting hacked, when someone manages to bypass your password and other security methods to get access to your private data, can be traumatic. However, some people overuse the term "hacked" to refer to anything that seems suspicious on their computer or the internet. Someone gaining access to your iCloud account or getting around your phone's passcode is a hack; merely receiving a phishing email that claims to be from a legitimate source does not mean you've been hacked. Just delete the email and don't reply.

10. Modem & Router

Most modems provided by ISPs are both modems, which modulate and demodulate a data signal so that you can use the internet, and routers, that route traffic and assign addresses to devices on your local network. So it's understandable that people mix up these two terms.

If you use a modem/router combination device, you can refer to it using either term. If you have one of each, make sure you know which is the modem and which is the router if you need to power cycle them.