Definition of Delete vs Cancel – Two Commonly Confused Computer Terms

In this article, I want to talk a little bit about two computer terms that I see people confusing or demonstrating that they don’t understand completely.  People often use the two interchangeably or consistently use the wrong one.

These two terms are “cancel” and “delete.”

Let’s start with “delete.” To delete something is the process of taking something such as a file, like a Word document or photograph, and removing it. The process generally involves moving it to the trash on a Mac or the recycle bin on a Windows machine and emptying the trash or recycle bin. The emptying part is what is actually deleting it.

When you delete a file, in most cases for most people, it’s gone.

Technically, it’s still there but has been marked as available space on the drive — think of painting over a mark on a wall — it’s hidden but not technically gone. Whatever space the file that has been deleted was taking up is marked as available. Until some other file comes along and is saved in that spot, or part of that same spot, the file is technically available and can be recovered with the right program.

However, as far as most people are concerned, once the recycle bin or trash is emptied, the file is gone for good. Until you empty it, it’s still available for you to pull back out and retrieve.

Another example of how to use the word “delete” correctly is when you delete not a file, but text.  For example, if I decided I didn’t want this specific sentence in this article anymore, I’d delete it with the “delete” or “backspace” key on my keyboard.

Again, as with deleting a file, this is the process of removing something.

In most writing programs (including word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, or email programs such as Mozilla Thunderbird, etc.) you can restore words you’ve deleted if you use “undo” to reverse the last thing you did.

Some programs may let you undo more than once, stepping back through each change you made, but in most or all cases once you close the program, any words you’ve deleted from your document are gone for good unless you’ve saved them in a different file. What I see people doing sometimes is use the term “cancel” or “delete” inappropriately.

Deleting is the process of taking information on a computer and getting rid of it. It is not the process of closing a window.

I have seen a lot of people refer to closing a window or getting rid of an error message that has come up as “deleting” it. That’s not deleting. If you close a window, you’re simply closing a window.

I’ve also seen people refer to closing a window as canceling. I’ve also seen people refer to deleting an item as canceling it. That’s not the correct terminology.

Canceling is when you have a process that has been started and you “cancel” that process. You stop it from continuing, or interrupt it in other words.  It takes you back to where you were immediately before the process.

What do I mean by that? Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you in a word processor, like Microsoft Word. You’ve written something, and then you close the program without saving.

What’s going to happen?

Traditionally, the program will pop up a window or dialog box that presents you with some options. It will say something along the lines of, “You’re trying to close, and you haven’t saved yet. Would you like to save, cancel or continue without saving?”

The wording does vary from one program to the next, but something along those lines is what you might see in the situation where you’re trying to close without having saved yet.

Let’s just say the phrasing is, “Do you want to save the changes you made? Your changes will be lost if you don’t save them.” Then you’re presented with three buttons: don’t save, cancel and save.

What would happen in this situation if you tried these different buttons?

If you don’t save, it will simply close the program or window without saving it, and you will lose whatever work you’ve done since the last time you saved. If you click save, it will save the file, and probably ask you for a file name if you haven’t saved it before.

The other option is to cancel. Cancel would cancel the process of closing and take you right back to where you were before you started to close the window.

At that point you could continue writing, you could save and close or you could decide you’re going to close anyway and that you don’t care about saving. Then it would present you with the same three options, and you would be able to hit “don’t save.”

What I’m trying to say here is that if you are presented with a cancel option, it doesn’t mean it’s going to delete anything.

It just means that whatever process you’re in the middle of, in our example exiting a program, it interrupts that. It takes you right back to where you were immediately before that. It’s not correct to refer to closing a window as canceling it.

It’s not correct to refer to deleting a file as canceling it. Canceling only applies to a situation where you’ve started a process (a series of automated steps) which you have the option of cancelling before all the steps are completed.

If you want to get technical, if you hit the cancel button, it does close the little window with the question in it (the little window with the question in it is referred to as a “dialogue box” because it’s asking a question and waiting for a response — trying to have a dialogue with you).

This is probably where the confusion comes from for a lot of people. Closing the window is not correctly referred to as canceling even if sometimes canceling something will close a window. I hope that makes sense.

I know it’s a little confusing sometimes because you see these words out of context, and you don’t fully understand how they work and relate to each other.

I hope that makes some sense and will help you use those computer terms more accurately in the future so you can recognize and understand what people are saying when they’re using them correctly around you in the future as well.

What you’ve just read is an edited transcription of one of an audio lesson I recorded some time ago.  If you like to study written material to learn computers, you might check out my selection of computer training books on or if you prefer a visual approach you might want to check out my easy video lesson computer courses including the Mac Basics course and the PC Basics course here on my site.