David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
E-Mail or Email

The title and the date of this article has been lost.  I'm sure many people wish the whole thing had been lost. Nevertheless, it probably was November 2004, as people were suddenly willing to send us actual questions and sign their names.

Dave:  Hey, Gary, we got a WCAC question over electronic mail.

Gary:  "Electronic mail?"  Why are you being so formal?

Dave:  Don't want to give away the farm too soon.  It's from Mary Campbell from the Warren campus.  She writes, "Dearest Messrs. WCAC and QuAAC:  Be still my beating heart! Cease thou wretched wringing of mine hands! Anon, methinks there appears a worthy jury for my humble question. Is it 'e-mail,' 'E-mail,' or 'email? Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic mail message in 1971. Tomlinson could not have anticipated the storm of controversy over the spelling of the abbreviated form of his invention. In 1995, a search of 40 million words of Usenet news articles revealed that 'email' was in the lead with 19,371 instances followed by 'e-mail' (15,359), 'E-mail' (7,592) and 'Email' (5,906). FOLDOC, the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing (http://wombat.doc.ic.ac.uk/foldoc/), contends that 'the form "email" is . . . common, but is less suggestive of the correct pronunciation and derivation than "e-mail." My quick search of internet dictionaries gave the lead to the hyphenated form (e-mail) followed closely by 'email' in order of preference.  But, a recent message from the Computer Support Center used 'email' as the spelling of choice, as did a business card from a Canadian dentist. Please, which is it gentle sirs? Which spelling is correct? Dare I venture that the answer either? When new words are coined, time and frequency of usage are usually the deciding factors for dictionary editors — but, what sayeth thou, Messrs. WCAC and QuAAC?"

Gary:  Phew.  I just could've walked to Mary's office in the amount of time it took to read that.

Dave:  Hey, remember our vow?  No inside jokes.  Gary's office is right next door to Mary's, folks.  However, Mary's message does confirm my biggest fear about this column.

Gary:  What?  That like Dr. Sharma's British spelling message, everyone who writes in will be incredibly verbose and use much of our treasured VC space?

Dave:  Uh, then I guess Mary's email confirms my two biggest fears.

Gary:  That everyone who writes in will be grandiose with their language use.

Dave:  O.k., my three biggest fears.  My original fear was that everyone will see the "Ask WCAC" as a chance to clarify simply language inconsistencies.  I'll never get those intellectually challenging questions like the Fittipaldi Code.

Gary:  Fibonacci.  Your southerness is showing, Skippy, now get on with answering Mary's question.

Dave:  This is a question of coinage. New words in the English language have to go through a kind of "test period" before dictionaries decide upon an official spelling.  Electronic mail may still be too new to know.  So, I'm afraid we may have to tell Mary that the jury is still out.

Gary:  Well, Dave, as Mary points out, the dictionary lords have had 33 years to decide about e-mail or email or E-mail.

Dave:  Hey, who's the expert here?

Gary:  Al Gore?

Dave:  Who didn't see that one coming?  Anytime a technical word enters the language, the logical first place to check is an appropriate technical dictionary.

Gary:  Again, Mary has already implied that through her "online dictionary of computing."

Dave:  Will you hush? I'm trying to teach here.  For truer novices, we might refer to Barron's Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms, and at least of 1998, it says e-mail is preferred.

Gary:  So, the computer geeks want a hyphen.  Since when does the minority decide for the majority in this country?  Oh, wait, stupid question.

Dave:  Well, the Oxford Dictionary of New Terms also tells us to use e-mail.

Gary:  You've got all your reference books open on your desk right now, don't you? 

Dave:  Well, sure.  I could have Googled™ it, but I wanted to get this done in a few minutes.  Besides, there's a bigger lesson here.

Gary:  And that is?

Dave:  A person's best investment for using language and writing is a good dictionary.

Gary:  Really?  Isn't spell-check enough?


Gary:  I deserved that, didn't I?

Dave: It was for your own good.  As I was saying, a good dictionary has usage panels, based on the consensus of a group of experts, that can help you decide what word, or form of word, to use. Readers should look for "Usage" indicators after a word's definition.  For instance, a good dictionary after defining "affect" will have a Usage section on when to use "affect" and when to use "effect."

Gary:  As if one being a noun and the other being a verb isn't telling enough.

Dave:  Unfortunately, no.  Additionally, dictionaries reveal obscure meanings and etymologies.

Gary:  Etymology, isn't that the study of insects?

Dave: That's entomology!  And you wonder why I'm promoting dictionary use.  Discovering the root of a word through etymology can open up whole new areas of language use.

Gary:  With all the trouble people have trying to use English correctly, do you really want to encourage people to use words with their obscure meanings in mind?

Dave:  Actually, just the opposite.  If people are aware of all the meanings of a word then they could make better choices and avoid being misinterpreted.  For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "emailed" is also an obsolete term for "embossing."

Gary:  So, if I write that "I emailed my performance evaluation to my boss," it could be implying a very strange tattoo experience.

Dave:  Well, if you want "Da Plane" truth


Dave: I deserved that, didn't I?

Gary:  It was for your own good, now please continue.

Dave:  It is a good reason to use the hyphen in "e-mail."

Gary:  Man, is there any clear-cut straightforward answer to any of these language questions?

Dave:  Not really, Gary.  That's why I always tell students two things.  One, buy a good dictionary, invest a good handbook, and read a lot.  Those actions will make them better language users.

Gary:  That's three things, but I'll play along; what's the other thing you tell them?

Dave: That if they aren't sure of a correct spelling, grammatical structure, or mechanics issue, rewrite the sentence to avoid it.

Gary:  Thus, your use of "electronic mail" at the beginning of the article.

Dave:  You catcheth on quickly, Messr. QuAAC