When labeling Checkboxes is it bad to use "negative" or "opposite" descriptions? Should a checked Checkbox always mean "do something", or is it OK for it to mean "don't do something"?

For example:

  • Disallow Import vs. Allow Import
  • Hide Settings vs. Show Settings

7 Answers 7


I prefer positive phrasing but I think this also has to do with default state. In terms of the description I think it should state what the checkbox is to accomplish when checked and that phrasing should most concisely express the behavior that is entailed regardless of positive or negative phrasing.

Naturally positive phrasing tends to be more concise however there are some language dependent cases where a negative phrasing is actually more common or at least better expresses the situation. If the UI is supposed to support more than one language then I would say sticking with positive phrasing as doing so would make translation simpler and reduce possible dramatic differences in the size of the text that the label needs to accommodate.

Check out the Windows UX Guide which has this to say about checkbox labels.


Negative labels for checkboxes are confusing, since a checked checkbox implies choosing for an action or option. We also know from exam questions that people, especially when under stress or with time pressure, find it easier to understand active positive phrases than passive negative ones (and the worst you can do is use a double negative).

Note that this is also an accessibility issue. Clear labels are good for everyone, but are particularly important for dyslexics and people with another mother tongue.

  • choosing for - definitely. That's what is obvious from the control's look, the next task for the user is to find out for what and that's what makes negating bad.
    – Wolf
    Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 8:25

I'd suggest you always make it a positive. Some people are not so good with instructions, positive vs negative meaning, and in some cases, language itself may be a barrier.

Shouldn't the default be such that nothing happens unless you choose to make it so? Having something happen by default 'unless' someone chooses not to is pretty counter-intuitive.

  • I completely agree - If someone sees a keyword, they expect the positive reaction (I include myself in this group). It's often not a matter of language, but rather one of laziness!
    – idbentley
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 21:49
  • The one case I have seen that seems to make sense to use negative phrasing is when the option represents exclusion of something from a set of results. The alternative would be the phrase it as "include only" which is more verbose. Ex: "exclude female test subjects" vs. "include only mail test subjects".
    – jpierson
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 21:56
  • Yes, but you are still doing an action in your case and it's active, not passive. Choosing to exclude something is different in meaning than choosing not to. Always side on active vs. passive. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 23:48

As a rule of thumb one should always go for the positive phrasing, as indicated by this Jeff Johnson GUI Bloopers 2 checklist - item 12: http://www.gui-bloopers.com/checklist.php


In his book, "GUI Bloopers 2.0" Jeff Johnson describes negative checkboxes as a design blooper and should be avoided. You could argue possible scenarios to use them. Most of the time however, they tend to make more sense to the programmer and just confuse the user. Best advice don't use them. You will have a better GUI if you just use positive checkboxes.


As already stated, positive labels should be preferred. A typical phenomenon I observe in configuration settings, that you carefully read a label is once, at the first encounter. After that, you skimming for the GUI after sense carriers. So you easily overlook mere negations.

Sometimes antonymes are equivalent and it's hard to say what the positive form is. The two pairs you gave are interesting in this respect.

Disallow Import vs. Allow Import

The word disallow is clearly derived from the word allow by adding a negating prefix.

Hide Settings vs. Show Settings

To hide may be the opposite from show but here it's open which of it is "positive" or primary. Of course, context matters as well, so maybe hide is in "negatively connoted" in GUIs. So maybe a Checkbox should not be used if none of two options is clearly derived from the other, In this case, consider switching to Radiobuttons.


For each interface component with a label:

-Identify the purpose of the interface component. -Check that each label makes the component's purpose clear.

If in doubt, do some A/B testing or even some qualitative research to validate whether the purpose of your checkbox has been clearly communicated.

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