There’s a big debate amongst prescriptivists as to whether one should write the term for electronic mail with or without a hyphen — i.e., e-mail or email. That’s a really dumb debate. Why on earth should it matter? I would even go so far as to say that if it matters to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Strike that. You’re reading the right blog, because hopefully I’ll eventually convince you that stupid little niggling points like this don’t matter. Maybe you’ll even come to believe that holding staunch opinions about insignificant points like whether there’s a hyphen in e-mail serves only to convince people that grammar is just a bunch of stupid rules determined more or less arbitrarily by angry old people, and that most of these rules can be safely ignored by reasonable people. (Returning readers may have noticed this is a common theme in my posts.)

Grammar is not that, or rather it oughtn’t to be that. Grammar (from this linguist’s perspective) is really a series of conventions that ease communication and improve the overall likelihood of an intended message being transmitted correctly and efficiently. Does including or excluding the hyphen in e(-)mail affect information transmission or make anything less clear? (Hint: No.)

Is there anyone out there who can give a good reason why this needs standardized? Is it going to hurt you or distract you to read a story where it’s sometimes written e-mail and other times email? Such variation is commonplace. Think about when you’re talking. If you’re like me, sometimes you say either with an “I” sound at the beginning, and other times you say it with an “E” sound at the beginning. There’s no difference in meaning between the two; it’s just two ways of saying the same thing. Sometimes one just seems to sound better, but most of the time, the decision seems to come down to random variation. Why not let hyphenation in e-mail be the same way? Sometimes it looks better with a hyphen, sometimes without, and sometimes it looks about the same. My rule about hyphenating email is to do what feels right to you. Include the hyphen, omit the hyphen. Hyphenate it sometimes, don’t hyphenate it others. Whatever. The world doesn’t care. Or at least the world shouldn’t care. Hopefully at some point it won’t.

Look, if you just can’t stand not having a prescribed form for email, ditch the hyphen. Ray Tomlinson, the first person to send an inter-computer email, says the word shouldn’t have a hyphen. I’m of the opinion that the inventor of something should usually have final say on its name, unless they want to call it something absurd like “The Infinitgatiatorewenerwjrti73426736yyyryteyryreyery”. That’s a name I’d oppose.

Summary: It oughtn’t to make a difference whether it’s email or e-mail, and I say both are perfectly acceptable. If you need to come down on a side, I’d go for the non-hyphenated version.

[Updated 4/24/08: I've posted some counter-arguments to claims that e-mail must be hyphenated, in case you happen upon somebody who can't be dissuaded from the position that this does matter.]

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The Stupid Grammar Rules series as it stands:

  • I: Email vs. e-mail (04/11/08)
  • II: data are (08/11/08)
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