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In a technical documentation, I came across the title "How to run this software under Mac M1 or M2". This made me wonder, again, about a flaw in translation. We often say: "The software runs on a computer / under operating system A / in the cloud." All these are just metaphors, as software is non-physical and therefore cannot run itself anywhere. Instead, software is executed or run by a computer, be it on premise or in network (which a cloud is, too). I sometimes translate technical texts for non-technical readers and like to use precise, yet common words to give my readers a good understanding. What are the proper common prepositions and phrases for saying that

  • a given software is able to be executed by a particular hardware (or requires this hardware),
  • a given software is able to be executed with a given operating system (or requires it),
  • a given operating system can run a particular software (note the change in the point of view). Are there differences between the various English dialects (British, American etc.) in this?

Update: I was asked to mention my prior research. Due to a lack of access to many native British and American speakers, I asked GPT-4 as a state-of-the-art Large Language Model and asked here for verification with real-world human intelligence. Its answer to the first two parts of my question is "on" as the most common preposition, with no difference between British and American English. For the third part it recommended the use of "can run", "is compatible with" and "supports". Your helpful answers pointed out to me that "under" is also suitable in combination with software, not hardware. All this helps me to get a better understanding. Despite being a bit off-topic I also appreciate the additions about "a piece of software" and prepositions about data storage.

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    Both the words "under" and "on" are commonly used with reference to running software for specific operating systems. Preposition usage in English isn't always set in stone. I'm from the UK. I have no preference for either in this particular context. Both make sense. As for frequency, you can do a search on Google ngram viewer, although I wouldn't read too much into the results.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented May 6 at 19:08
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    We don't say 'a software'; we might say 'a piece of software', 'a program/programme', 'an app/application', etc. Commented May 6 at 20:12
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    @TimR: The people in the advertising department aren't stupid. They know perfectly well that they're using an "unusual" (but because of non-native speakers, far from unknown) form. But they figure the slight loss from a few people who think the worse of them for "poor English" will be more than offset by people (such as yourself! :) remembering their ads! Commented May 6 at 21:18
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    @FumbleFingers I should go tell HR that I plan to eliminate some of their jobs using an easy-to-use software, as soon as I can remember its name.
    – TimR
    Commented May 7 at 9:58
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    @MichaelHarvey A dad-joke a day keeps the doldrums away.
    – TimR
    Commented May 7 at 11:40

2 Answers 2

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Under is fine when referring to software executing within a particular operating environment (whether the OS or even something more specific). In this case "under" is used to indicate that the software in question requires support from something else besides the physical computer; but you would not use "under" when talking about a physical computer.

That is, the following is okay:

This plug-in runs under Doodad Extreme 15.9 (released on Dec 31, 2022) or later.

You would not say

This plug-in runs under Dave's computer.

"On" can be used for a more general sort of meaning.

Both of the following are okay"

(1) This plug-in runs on Doodad Extreme 15.9 (released on Dec 31, 2022) or later.
(2) This plug-in runs on Dave's computer.
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  • I don't think "support" is the underlying meaning. under is used with political regimes, especially repressive autocratic ones, and I think the word's use with operating systems is an extension of that meaning: the apps run under the control of the O/S.
    – TimR
    Commented May 6 at 20:37
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Side note: We don't say "a software". We say, "a piece of software" or "the software".

We say that software runs "on" a computer. "This runs on my Foobar 2000 computer." "This runs on the computer in the accounting department." Etc.

We say that software runs "on" or "under" an operating system or some other "environment". The two terms are interchangeable. "The accounting program runs under Linux." "The accounting software runs on Linux." "This runs under the Java Runtime platform." "This runs on the Java Runtime platform."

I've never heard someone say that software runs "under" a computer. Like, "This game runs under my laptop." Indeed it sounds amusing to me, like the software is on the floor underneath the laptop.

I don't recall hearing someone say that software runs "in" something, like "This runs in the accounting department's server". But it doesn't sound jarring. Just unusual.

We say that data is stored "in" or "on" something. Like, "This file is stored in my hard drive." "This data is on the cloud."

I don't know that there's a good reason for any of these prepositions. As you say, software is not a physical thing, so it gets difficult to say whether it is "in" or "on" or "under" something. The running of software is even less physical, so appropriate pronouns are more arbitrary. (Of course software is physical in a sense: The bits have to be stored as magnetic charges (or whatever) SOMEWHERE. And when software runs, electricity is flowing around SOME set of conductors. But whatever.)

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