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Hyphen Help Us: E-mail vs. Email

Nobody writes “electronic mail,” but how do you write the abbreviation—is it e-mail with a hyphen or its successor, email? It is a small matter that has larger implications: how, why, and when do accepted words and terms change forms?

It seems no less than a miracle that all right has survived this long, despite the perennial threat of alright. It’s probably only a matter of time until want to becomes wanna, and going to becomes gonna. (Or worse: even “I’m gonna go” is preferable to the trendily inarticulate “I’m-a go,” which one now hears with dispiriting regularity.)

It is doubtful that anyone under thirty writes “e-mail.” A modish blog site called Mashable declares e-mail an “antiquated tech term.” Mashable gloated when, in 2011, the Associated Press Stylebook started recommending email.

As you may have noticed, many blogs and periodicals, and even some books, already write “email.” Others are holding out, including the San Francisco Chronicle, defiantly championing e-mail despite being just down the road from Silicon Valley.

The writer Roy Blount Jr. is a passionate crusader for e-mail. In his book Alphabet Juice, Blount states, “email is an e-barbarism,” pointing out that “you wouldn’t write Abomb for A-bomb, or opositive for O-positive, or Xray [for X-ray].”

The GrammarBook.com staff won’t deny that we are in Blount’s corner, but at the same time we bristle at being labeled “antiquated.” Those who care about good grammar are already dismissed as querulous fussbudgets by most of the young and the hip; who needs more of that noise?

But bear in mind that the ascendant Millennial Generation is, to put it mildly, not noted for its language skills. Millennials are mystified by hyphens, and when they use them at all, they tend to use them incorrectly. (Many of them think a hyphen is a cute little long dash.) So in retrospect, it’s likely that e-mail was in trouble from the start.

There you have it. It’s the dilemma of sticking with something that works just fine vs. learning to live with a slick new version, however inane, vulgar, and wrongheaded it may strike you.

Readers, now it’s your turn: send us an electronic mail and weigh in on all this.

Posted on Monday, March 3, 2014, at 6:17 pm


22 Comments

22 Responses to “Hyphen Help Us: E-mail vs. Email”

  1. Tom Reese says:

    Really. All right has to have one foot in the grave.

  2. Joe G says:

    As an editor of multiple books and a lifelong grammar student, I have never imagined using “email” rather than “e-mail”, and don’t expect to do so.

  3. Bruce says:

    Time to join the 21st century. It’s ‘email.’ . . . and I’m 61 yrs old.

  4. BGGO says:

    My comment is that ‘learning to live with a slick new version’ is not an excuse to be incorrect. Rules are what define us, as a nation and our pride should guide us toward excellence. In stating that, I also think that the complexity of the English language is its worst enemy. It is difficult to learn, and those too lazy to research the answer, tend to accept flawed written language.

  5. Glenn Pickel says:

    Examples of modern dialects:
    1. We are going to
    Young person on television: Wergunna.
    Older southern white person or young urban black gangsta: We go
    Smart aleck: Re-lax. Wergunna. Ok? You gotta problem?
    Foreign person: We are going to
    2. You are going to
    Young person on television: Yergunna.
    Older southern white person or urban black gangsta: Y’all go
    Smart aleck: Re-lax. Yergunna, right? Ok? You gotta problem?
    Foreign person: You are going to

    3. Be right back (after a commercial etc)

    Young person or Dr Phil on television: Brytbak
    Older southern white: Bry back
    Urban black gangsta: We be back
    Smark aleck: Re-lax. We’ll be cu-umin back, Ok? You gotta problem?
    Foreign person: We will be right back

  6. Allan G. says:

    We can debate this question but in all practicality, “email” will win. On my smart phone when the keyboard pops up, hyphens and other punctuation marks are not shown. That means anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word. These sorts of communicators seem unlikely to me to make the effort.

    In my childhood, my mother bought Monroe Leaf’s Fun Book that contained “Grammar Can Be Fun”, “Manners Can Be Fun” and “Safety Can Be Fun.” I still treasure these stories. This was a great way to teach children the language, behavior and safety. I’m guessing you are aware of these books. As my book began to fall apart, 60 years after its introduction into our family, I scanned every page to pass on to my youngest grandchild. I have attached a page that addresses your first lament.

    One of today’s creative writers needs to produce a modern version of these relevant teachings to perpetuate the values of good language. I don’t believe everyone is simply lazy about degrading words, just under-educated. Maybe you have someone on your staff who is ready for the challenge.

  7. Karen D. says:

    This was sent to me by a coworkher, when I sent her your article on email vs e-mail.

    And here’s a little known fact…

    Oddly enough, the word `emailed’ is actually listed in the OED; it means “embossed(with a raised pattern) or perh. arranged in a net or open work”. A use from 1480 isgiven. The word is probably derived from French `e’maille” (enameled) and related toOld French `emmailleu”re’ (network). A French correspondent tells us that in modernFrench, `email’ is a hard enamel obtained by heating special paints in a furnace; an`emailleur’ (no final e) is a craftsman who makes email (he generally paints someobjects (like, say, jewelry) and cooks them in a furnace).

    So, all you youngsters….TAKE THAT!

  8. Patty D. says:

    I’ve given up on the hyphen in email/e-mail, simply because I use it so frequently. I would spend half my waking hours battling over it. Email is just too prevalent (vs e-mail) so I buckled! And normally I’m a real stickler……..just couldn’t fight “City Hall” this time.

  9. Jer F. says:

    I really liked this Hyphen Help Us note. I am 83, but I write email rather than e-mail because 1. It is easier, and 2 though I am a pretty good typist, I still have trouble finding the hyphen without lifting my hand and going to it on the keypad. I think e-mail is more correct, but being lazy, email rules.

  10. Gerald G. says:

    I agree it should be “e-mail.” I don’t think there’s much of an argument about which it should be. I see the prob in finding the hyphen on the keyboard rather than just skipping it.

    And what about your “wrongheaded,” instead of wrong-headed?

    I do have a question: I hear “educated” people saying, “The thing is is that it should be ABC.” Is the use of two “is’s” kosher?

    • Thanks very much to you and others for contributing to our discussion on email vs. e-mail; we appreciate it.

      Regarding “wrongheaded,” you can’t be wrong about it as long as you consult your dictionary. It’s one word in our Webster’s, but some dictionaries also list it with a hyphen.

      We find it interesting that you asked about “is is.” We have written an entry on this topic in the “Confusing Words and Homonyms” chapter of our new edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. It will also be on our website as soon as we complete updating it to reflect the new edition. (Spoiler alert: the truth of the matter is is that we don’t like it.)

  11. Matt S. says:

    Ok, since you asked for votes:

    I vote for “email” because of its level of use, there is no ambiguity in meaning. “A-bomb”, on the other hand is comparatively rarely used, and if you are going to remove the “-“ you might as well dump the silent “b”. Also, like in “X-ray”, the hyphen’s job is to signal a short pause in vocalization. To say “exksray”, it would be hard to distinguish the “X” sound separately from the “ray”. This allows the hearer to understand that there are other types of rays. The “e” sound in “email” does no harm to the rest of the word.

    I’ll throw in a vote for “alright”, because “all right” is hardly ever used for the meaning that “all is right”, rather as a synonym of “acceptable”. Because it has a singular meaning, it stands to reason to be a single word. (O.K. → OK)

    “O-positive” seems wrong to me, because it seems that “O” is the adjective of “positive”. Why is it not “O Positive”?

  12. Peggy K. says:

    Antiquated as it may be, it is e-mail for me!

  13. Michael O. says:

    Of course, the challenge is that “email” isn’t identified as a mistake by Microsoft Office Suite, and therein lies the rub, the battle that we fight.

  14. Karen B. says:

    It is not just the hyphen that bothers us, but other punctuation marks as well. Think of texting, for instance. The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone (Samsung) is the period. How I want that comma to show up on the screen without having to hit another key to get all those punctuation marks available.

    Texting is creating a whole new language, but I know the difference.

    Move on to email from e-mail.

  15. Jim F. says:

    Regarding hyphens: When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link. Once a particular group of people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be subconsciously dropped when they communicate with each other. It is like slang and inventing new words when necessary. It seems to me that one should be aware of one’s audience.

  16. Linda T. says:

    Admittedly, the average American’s understanding of grammar issues is, at best, foggy. Younger people especially seem to have a “loose” grasp of even fundamental grammar rules. However, while it is necessary to safeguard good grammar practices, sometimes I find your website’s take a trifle severe.

    When it comes to electronic mail, I think very few people—even strict grammar constructionists—would have difficulty accepting email over e-mail. Most people probably don’t even realize what the “e” stands for. They just know it means a mail message you receive over the internet. If you do a lot of typing, as I do, you might find every hyphen a pain because you have to take your fingers off the home keys to reach the necessary key.

    I sincerely hope that gonna and wanna never replace going to and want to. However, I do not find email an e-barbarism and am happy to use it in my communications.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to our discussion of email vs. e-mail; we appreciate it.

      While at first we thought your comment that we are “a trifle severe” was a trifle severe, we will admit that we occasionally stir the pot to encourage responses from our readers. Please note, however, that it was Roy Blount Jr. who called email an e-barbarism, not us. And look at what happened in the end: we will embrace email from here on in.

  17. Judi P. says:

    Hmmm, I’ve been writing it as “email” since I first learned that “email” existed and, at 71, I’m way beyond being “under thirty.” I’m still working and loving it, and have shared your page with our office staff, friends, and family. Keep up the great work!

  18. Scott S. says:

    I vote for email without the hyphen, as a natural progression. It seems like many words start out with a prefix like “non-“ or “un-“, but as they become familiar they lose their hyphen. I think it makes sense that “email” would do the same.

  19. Emily S. says:

    I would like to respond to your newsletter post regarding the use of the word “email.” Personally, I can see both sides of the hyphenation argument, as both followers of prescriptive and descriptive grammar make valid points. However, I took great offense at the language regarding “Millennials.” I am a member of the Millennial Generation and hold an advanced degree in applied linguistics from an Ivy League University. The relatively greater accuracy of my grammar in comparison to that of others is certainly a result of that formal training, as well as of an upbringing that focused on proper language usage. I absolutely do not feel that generation is a determining factor in one’s ability to speak or write well. As with other social phenomena, there are older individuals who do things well and older individuals who do not. There are younger individuals who do things well and younger individuals who do not. I have taught language courses for every grade level from Pre-K through adults (including at an Ivy League university), and I think the harsh tone your post took toward young people was completely out of line. I have known many young students who demonstrate fabulous mastery of the English language and many adults with atrocious grammar; the reverse is also quite true. Unfortunately, rather than judging individuals on their own merits, many people choose to judge a group as a whole based on their own personal prejudices. For example, it infuriates me when the music of younger songwriters is criticized with the age-old “Music used to mean something!” Undoubtedly, there are songs from every generation that are more poetically charged than others. A perfect example to consider is the catchy, but empty, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles in comparison to the works of many of today’s brilliant young writers like Of Monsters and Men. Judgmental generalizations only show ignorance, and I can’t help but feel the same about the scathing (and inaccurate) tone directed at the grammar of young people.

    Also, was your usage of the word “vs.” toward the end of the post meant to be ironic, another example of “inane, vulgar, and wrongheaded” usage?

    • Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughtful response. We are surprised and disappointed that you took “great offense” at our article on email vs. e-mail.

      In reviewing our remarks, we plead guilty to some degree of overgeneralization, but really, the criticism was mild. We feel our tone was more in sorrow than anger. Maybe you overreacted?

      You are correct that there have always been grammar-challenged people, but because of the failure and questionable priorities of America’s schools (a decline that started in the ’70s), many if not most young people today are, by the standards of 60 years ago, reading and writing—and speaking—at lower-grade-school levels. We base this statement on empirical evidence, from the way people talk in public to the way they write, unable to spell, or make a verb agree with its subject, or use punctuation marks adroitly, or find synonyms for “awesome” and “amazing.” If you do not see this all around you, we must inhabit different universes.

      What does it tell you when the keyboards on the most popular hand-held gadgets require extra effort to generate marks such as hyphens, and few if any of them can generate a long dash?

      As for your comparison of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to your generation’s best, since you weren’t around then, we’ll cut you some slack. The Beatles wrote that tune when they were teenagers, but even so, its innovative chord structure helped revolutionize rock ‘n’ roll. If you want to have a fair discussion of the Beatles, who in your generation can touch “A Day in the Life”?

      At your urging, we listened to Of Monsters and Men and found its synth-driven material highly derivative. We wonder why you didn’t champion the brilliant young artist Esperanza Spalding instead. That would be a real discussion!

      And by the way, what is your beef with vs.? It’s an abbreviation that has been around forever, and we find it quite handy. Nor have we ever heard of anyone’s objecting to it.

      Thank you again for a lively exchange.

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