Sunday, May 06, 2007


To e-, or not to e-?

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), with which I usually agree and to which I occasionally provide blog fodder, contends that “e-mail” needs a hyphen, and that rendering it as “email” (as I prefer here) is wrong. Referring to the arguments for “email” as “poppycock”, SPOGG quotes Bill Walsh for support:

Abbreviated explanation: Words based on single letters have never lost their hyphens, no matter how frequently they're used. It's X-ray, not Xray, T-shirt, not Tshirt, etc.

Now, I don't say “poppycock”, lest the third syllable send my email into the spam bucket. But...

First, I don't generally accept the argument that not doing something in some cases is a reason not to do it in others. English is a language full of inconsistencies, and that's altogether all right. Nota bene.

Second, “email” is different from “X-ray” and “T-shirt”. Those others actually come from the individual letters “X” and “T”, respectively. “Email” doesn't come from “E”; it's short for “electronic mail”. That said, other examples that are more apt are “A-bomb”, “B-girl”, and “G-suit”.

Third, there's a question of how the sounds flow. “X-ray” and “G-suit” couple two consonant sounds in a way that requires a significant pause when we say them. We don't say “ksray”; we say “eks ray”. With “email”, the initial vowel sound makes a big difference. We pronounce it as some of us do in “eleven” and “essential”, and we don't want to hyphenate those. We're used to saying vowel sounds that way, but we're not used to having a consonant stand alone in a syllable. The hyphen helps us cope.

Fourth, the difference between “email” and, say, “A-bomb”, which also has the initial vowel sound, is ubiquity. There was a time when everyone thought about the A-bomb, but there was never a time when the word was used constantly, as “email” is today. We never made a run-of-the-mill verb out of it. And we tend not to like retaining hyphens for the long haul in oft-used words.

The EEC's examples of “website” and “online”, though, are specious, as SPOGG says. SPOGG also comments on “log-in”, which hits another peeve of mine: with or without hyphens, words like “login”, “backup”, and “shutdown” are modifiers; the verbs are two words each, “log in”, “back up”, “shut down”:

Go to the login page and log in.

Back up your hard drive and put the backup disk in a safe place.

Use the shutdown process to shut down your computer.

But I digress; that's a different rant.

For better examples, we used to write “to-day” and “to-morrow”, and we eventually removed the hyphens. That is, indeed, what we tend to do, and it's not a change that I see any value in resisting.

I don't feel terribly strongly about the question of “email” vs “e-mail”, but I'll continue to prefer the former. I do think it's silly to make a big deal about it, either way. What I will hold out against is the tendency to use “email” (hyphenated or not) in a manner that's not parallel to how we'd use “mail”:

wrong: I had a lot of emails to answer today.
right: I had a lot of email to answer today.

wrong: When you find the spreadsheet, email me with it.
right: When you find the spreadsheet, email it to me.
right: When you find the spreadsheet, send it to me by email.

Replace “email” with “mail” in each of the examples above, and see which ones sound right. Use “email” the same way you'd use “mail”. One complication here is that we often use “email” as a shortened version of “email address” or “electronic mailbox”, so we hear things like, “Give me your email,” and “Send it to my email.” Those bother me too, but they're inevitable.

And for what it's worth, American Heritage Dictionary's fourth edition (2000) lists it thus, giving equal status to both (and lesser status to the capitalized version):

e-mail or email (also E-mail):   n. 1. A system for sending and receiving messages electronically over a computer network, as between personal computers. 2. A message or messages sent or received by such a system.   intr.v. To send (a message) by such a system.   [e(lectronic) mail]


The Ridger, FCD said...

While I agree that "email" doesn't need a hyphen, I don't quite understand why you insist on its being a complete analog to 'mail'. It's a new word, and there's no reason it can't be mass and count both, just as it's noun and verb both. Also, no reason it can't be used adjectivally, to modify "account" and then have the "account" drop off. All of those are perfectly normal patterns of English syntax. "I had a lot of emails to answer" is what we're going to say unless we say "eletters" - which I have never heard.

Barry Leiba said...

Well, I did say that I accept "email account" (or "email address" or "email box") turning into "email", though I guess I accept it less than happily. I'm not sure why turning "email messages" into "emails" bothers me more, but it does. Probably because I think "email" (not "emails") is the right word to use there, so I don't see the point of adding the "s".

But, yes, it's a lost fight. I just need to get over it. I have a lot of email to answer.

Dr. Momentum said...

I like the way "e-mail" looks when it's written (yeah, there's a solid argument) but I generally write it "email." I think. I actually haven't given it too much thought.

So, I agree that it is silly to make a big deal about it. Still, I enjoy seeing the different arguments.

I was also going to question (as The Ridger did) the strength of the mail/email analogy.

I think there is cause for some sort of consensus when there is ambiguity in language. But it is interesting that we've been sending electronic messages of this kind for over 20 years and still haven't agreed about how to talk about it.