Friday, August 03, 2007

Email vs. e-mail--

I got involved in a debate this week over email vs e-mail. Our UI says "email" and our documentation style guide says "e-mail." Editor's decision was to say "email" when referring to UI text and "e-mail" when talking about the topic. Good decision, but what I found interesting was the discussion about the usage. One writer favored the use of "email" saying that "e-mail" seemed outdated and that we should allow the language to evolve. Anyone who has read my blogs knows that I am all about letting the language evolve, therefore I found it interesting that I was on the side of "e-mail." It gave me pause and made me think. (I like talking like that in blogs because you sure can't talk like that in a Help file, e.g., "Error 404 file not found: Certainly gives you pause and makes you think where the file could be.")

I AM all about evolution of the language, but there are two sides to evolution: The weak and useless go away, but the strong and useful persist. My colleague's reasoning was the compound words tend to eventually lose the hyphens after a period of acceptance, and I think that is an accurate description of the evolutionary life cycle of most compound constructions: two closely associated terms become a hyphenated term and eventually the hyphen goes away and leaves one word. Black board becomes black-board which becomes blackboard.

But the situation under question is a special subset, one in which one of the elements of the compound expression is a letter that stands for a word. I can think of no example where one of these has evolved into a single word. Examples include c-section, t-bar, i-beam, a-bomb, b-school. Many of these terms are much older than e-mail and their hyphens are still intact. The law of language evolution would indicate that the hyphen must be useful in this pattern or else it would be eventually disappearing over time (which it hasn't seemed to). Try reading these words without the hyphen and I think you'll see that the punctuation "earns his rations" as we would say in the army.

Csection, tbar, ibeam, abomb, bschool are awkward constructions to process because our initial instinct is to see them as letters and not as words.

So I am not the linguistic anarchist some of my colleagues fear me to be, merely a pragmatist. As professional communicators, we should throw away the useless bete noires (use that in a Help file), but we should also preserve any aspect of language that adds precision or facilitates processing on the part of the reader.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the discussion. A related topic may be mid-word capital letters. I used to work for PeopleSoft. My wife just bought an iPhone.

Miranda said...

One thing to consider is that we live in the time of iPods, Ebay, and eMachines. I doubt the marketing department for these companies put as much thought into the matter as you have, but they did change the environment to make it seem okay to drop the hyphen.