Email vs. E-mail

By Mark Nichol

Once upon a time, one could speak or write about such media as books and mail, or use such terms as business and commerce, and your audience would immediately understand what you were referring to. But then, toward the end of the twentieth century, came a revolution in how humans conduct social behavior, academic pursuits, and business transactions—activities now often mediated through an electronic device.

As humans adapted to personal computers, cell phones, and related technology, our language concurrently evolved. One result was the invention of a new prefix: The letter e soon appeared in front of existing words as an abbreviation of electronic to express that the term refers to an action accomplished using a computer (or, later, related devices such as cell phones and tablets).

But for a time, how that prefix was attached was a matter of some disagreement. Should a hyphen be employed, or should the term be considered a closed compound? “Electronic mail,” which originally referred to any electronic document-transmission method, including production of facsimiles (also known as faxes), dates back to the 1960s, and in the early 1970s, the abbreviation was codified in the computing world as email. However, even though in the 1990s, the then new but quickly influential magazine Wired championed this closed form, though as the process became widely available, many publications used diverse variations, including e-mail, E-mail, and Email.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which in general sensibly favors minimizing the use of hyphens in prefixed terms, recommends e-mail and the like (except in proper names such as eBay). The Associated Press Style Book switched to email a few years ago after steadfastly mandating e-mail, though e-commerce and all other e-words remain hyphenated. (The capitalized forms, thankfully, never quite caught on.) Merriam-Webster’s, which generally mirrors Chicago’s hyphenation policy, lists e-mail, with email as a variant.

So, which form should prevail? As always, the options are, if you’re self-publishing or you’re compiling a house style guide for a company or organization, to decide for yourself and stick to one or the other, or to go with the form preferred by a company or organization you are writing for or submitting writing to. If the former alternative pertains to you, however, consider that email is only the most prominent among a class of similarly structured words with e attached to book, commerce, learning, and so on, and consistency is a virtue. Therefore, if e-mail, then e-book and so on. If email, then ebook and so on. (And never capitalize the e or the first letter of the root word unless the prefixed word is a brand name.)

My recommendation is, though I generally favor omitting prefix hyphens, to consider the aesthetics and avoid such infelicities as etail (“electronic retail,” meaning “online retail”) and ewaste (“electronic waste,” referring to discarded electronics). (I would avoid such prefixed terms altogether in favor of the long forms, but this may not always be desirable.)

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11 Responses to “Email vs. E-mail”

  • Eva Szenes

    Dear Mark,

    Interesting post, thank you very much. In a future article, could you clarify the difference between electronic vs electric for ESL readers?

    Thank you!

  • John

    Does CMOS recommend email? I don’t see it explicitly covered in the sixteenth edition, but they exclusively use e-mail, not email.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Just tacking on a letter like “e”, and especially a vowel {a, e, i, o, u, y}, onto the front end of another word, inevitably leads to trouble! You can even create a curseword, or something else undesirable, if not in your own language, but in some other (reasonably common) language. You will never know ahead of time. Maybe by putting an “e” or an “i” on the front of some word, you’ll get the Slovakian or Slovenian word for “Go stick a finger down your throat!”, or worse. (In some languages, one word can be a whole sentence, and there is a Czech word that means this.)
    Already, if you take e-manual and make it into “emanual”, you are very close to “Emanuel” and “Emmanuel”. This is not so good if your own name happens to be Emanuel or Emmanuel, but to some people, “Emanuel” and “Emmanuel” have religious connotations.
    Creating words willy-nilly is asking for trouble.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Long ago, I was raised in a Protestant home, and the Old Testament said that Abram changed his name to Abraham, and I wondered, “Big deal?”
    Then a man named “Saul” changed his name to “Paul”, and once again, “Big Deal”? Besides that, there was a King Saul in the Old Testament.
    What if today’s Saul changed his name to e-Saul, and that became Esau? Confusion, confusion!

  • venqax

    As someone who hates anything outside regular alphabetic letters– mainly because I am a slow and bad enough typist already– I naturally gravitate toward email, etc. without any crutches. However, similar to what Dale says, it can be treacherous to just start taking shortcuts in spelling, especially when the result violates rules of the language that are hard enough to enforce as it is. Of course, pronunciation is a BIG cause of mine. “Email” would not necessarily be pronounced EE-male by English rules– though it could be. It could easily be eh-MALE. And EK-o-murs, rhymes with check-a-purse is more automatic than EE-kom-urs is. So, if anything I’d recommend changing the spellings to something that reflectst the intended pronunciation without violating, or a least straining, English rules. Sure, everyone says EEconomy, but how many carry it over to EEconomics, rather than Ehconomics? Problem, of course, is that the logical digraph for the long E is EE, and English spelling rules don’t really allow for words to begin with that, either. This is a surprisingly tough one. Maybe just a space is the answer: E mail, e commerce, e book. That would be my suggestion and I’m sure it will go far. Yep.

  • Phil Radler

    Mr. Nichol,
    I greatly admire your work, but I must disagree about the position taken by the Chicago Manual of Style. The online versions of CMOS (both the 16th and 15th editions) explicitly retain the hyphen with the “e-” prefix (specifically citing “e-mail”), and recommend its use unless the term is a proper noun (e.g., eBay).

  • Vie Herlocker

    I opened the comments to find that Mr. Radler has already shared my concern. CMOS continues to hold to the hyphen in e-mail. I wish they had made the switch with 16, but until they do, I have my WORD set to correct my quickly typed “email” to “e-mail.”

  • thebluebird11

    I’m all for eliminating clutter as much as possible, and hyphens often clutter up writing. I understand “email” without a hyphen, would not mistake this word for any other, and would have no difficulty figuring out its pronunciation. However, words that I don’t see often, like e-commerce or e-learning, might be better off retaining a hyphen, at least for now. Most people I know do email, even those in their 90s. But e-commerce and e-learning seem (to me) to be relatively new areas going electronic. I admit I am nearly 60, so maybe people in their 20s and 30s see no problem with ecommerce and elearning. I for one don’t like how those look with the hyphens eliminated. But have no fear; soon all of us old folks will be gone, and then younger folks who have grown up with e-commerce and e-learning can remove the hyphens and get on with their elives.

  • Anne Victory

    Normally your articles are very well researched. I was therefore very surprised to see the statement that Chicago “has long recommended email.” That is completely false. Their hyphenation table SPECIFICALLY says e-mail, e-book, etc. That said, they will be (according to an article I read) changing their recommendation to email in the 17th edition of CMoS, which is scheduled for publication in September.But that’s hardly a long period of recommendation.

  • Mark Nichol

    Phil and Anne:
    Usually, I double-check to confirm information like this, rather than rely on my (sometimes faulty) memory, but I neglected to do so in this case. That reference has been corrected.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Sure, everyone says EEconomy, but how many carry it over to EEconomics, rather than Ehconomics?”
    For an example of people who do this, there are people whose native language is French. It is also strange to here them say “economic” without any stresses on any syllables, rather than “EK-o-NOM-ic”. It comes out of their mouths as “ee-con-o-mic”.
    This became salient in a televised interview with a Frenchwoman who was a high-ranking administrator in the economics of the European Union.
    My reaction was that she should have had enough interactions with Britons, Canadians, Americans, and Aussies to have corrected this already.
    Economic can even be pronounced “EK-koo-NOM-mic”, especially with a Southern or Western drawl.
    D.A.W.

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