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There is an issue with naming call to actions (or buttons in generally) that doesn't apply in english due to its easy structure but in most other languages there might be differences:

Does a call to action actually means that

a) The user is saying what she wants to do ("I want to create a file") or

b) The user is commanding her wish to the system ("Computer, create a file for me")

Well, it's a little bit hard to understand the difference in english so here is a german example of the same phrase that should apply to a lot of other languages, too.

a) "Ich möchte eine Datei erzeugen" <-- infinitive

b) "Computer, erzeuge mir eine Datei" <-- imperative, notice the missing "n" at the end

So would a CTA "erzeuge" make a difference compared to "erzeugen"?

So far, I've seen only infinitive CTA in german. But how do english user perceive CTAs? Do they think of it as an infinitive or as an imperative? Are german CTAs infinitives probably because of the lack of empathy during the first years of software development?

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You don't seem to be talking about calls to action, but rather about choices in a menu. The possible actions are listed by their names - which for verbs means the infinitive. The user thinks

I can

  • create a file or
  • save the current file

Usually, the user feels to be in control, and rather thinks of the actions as his own - he is not telling the computer to do something, but uses the computer as a tool to do something himself.

The only adequate use for the imperative is when this mental model is not in place - which is rather an exception. A good example would be command languages.

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I believe that the imperative form is to be preferred over the infinitive in CTAs because psychologically they incite (order?) the user to take action.

I don't know German at all but in Italian we use the imperative.

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I beg to differ with Luca De Angelis's answer and would prefer the infinitive over the imperative for CTA. For the following reason:

Using the imperative as CTA often implies additional work to be done by the user. The imperative in English is used a lot of times, especially across the web Sign up now!, Get the cheapest products!, Follow us on Twitter!. All these actions seem not be the end of a transaction (although some could be) and require/imply further work for the user. In these particular examples it's filling out a sign up form, buying the cheapest products and following the tweets.

On the other hand, the infinitive seems to put the workload on the system. Clicking "Save" or "Log in" seems to be enough for the system to do exactly this. No further action needed.

As for the German part of your question: in German the infinitive is used loads of times, but often abused as a kind of imperative. This is often the case as the German imperative usually needs a pronoun in order not to sound strange. E.g. Jetzt anmelden! (means something like "Sign up now!" but isn't the imperative form) would be Melde Dich jetzt an! or Melden Sie sich jetzt an!. This takes a lot of space and is twice as long as the other option.

Slightly off-topic: It's interesting that in your question, you have provided an example to tell the computer what to do and yet you're talking about a CTA. So for a CTA it should actually be the other way round. I.e. the "computer" provides options for you. Otherwise the first thing the user would have to ask would be "Computer, darf ich Sie duzen?" (asking the computer if one has to use the polite form to address it or if it's ok to user the informal form).

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  • "to tell the computer what to do and yet you're talking about a CTA" <-- you're right. I probably mixed up those too much, i tend to use button labels in general and CTAs as synonyms as a bad habbid, need to work on this :) – Alexej Froehlich Aug 6 '14 at 7:13

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