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07 April 2011

Nit of the Day: Panes vs. Panels

A member of LinkedIn's Technical Writer Forum asked, I want to find out the difference usage of these two words: pane and panel. e.g. There are two panes or panels on this screen. You can place a dockable panel (not pane) anywhere on the screen. (sic)

A panel is a flat, physical area, usually containing controls, receptacles, a display such as an LED or LCD screen, or allowing users to remove it for access to whatever lies behind it. A screen is, technically, a physical, displaying area of a panel.

A pane is a section of a window. For a physical example, a paned window is a window that is divided into sections known as panes. Originally, the meaning pertained to sectioned glass windows in walls. (Wikipedia).

Thus, panes in Word 2007 would include the title bar where it shows the names of file and of the application, a menu bar, a "ribbon" bar, the editing area, a status bar, and optional ruler bars.

Microsoft uses "task pane" to designate an area sectioned off from the main area of an application and used for some function. For example, in Excel 2007, if you click on Review, Thesaurus, Excel will divide off a portion of the editing pane to create a dialog pane so you can search for synonyms.

MS Office task panes are dockable: You can drag them to different borders of the window or leave them to float, independent of the application window. Thus, Office task panes can convert between panes and pop-up windows.
  • Panes make up windows.
  • Windows occupy the screen.
  • The flat-panel display houses the screen.
The screen is both physical and virtual, whereas the panel is only physical, and the panes and windows are virtual.

To correct the question:

Better: There are two panes or panels on in this window screen. You can place a dockable panel (not pane) at any margin of the editing area, or you can leave it as a pop-up window anywhere on the screen.

Best: This window has two panes....

If the company style book differs, however, remember the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.


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  1. Interesting post, but I disagree. Just as a window has a real-world, physical counterpart, so does a panel. The distinction between pane and panel tends to be artificial and subjective, but generally aligns as follows. In graphical user interfaces, panels are used to display a region of (generally related) grouped controls or status indicators. Panes are independent but usually related sub-views of which a larger view is composed. The terms are then used strictly interchangeably according to the capricious and whimsical nature speaker or writer. This link is helpful:

  2. Beating a dead horse from years ago, but in my opinion, a panel is interactive (imagine a NASA control board with switches and buttons) and a pane is display only (the computer screen or a control card).

    1. Agreed, it's a dead horse to me and to me, too.

      I said above that one should follow the relevant style guide. When encountering words like this, it's often a big help to define terms up front, just so everybody understands. Agile practitioners buck against documentation, but any effort with more than a single participant will benefit from creating a shared glossary and style guide.