In the earlier post I wrote on the email/e-mail debate, I claimed that, were I backed into a corner, I would favor the unhyphenated version. However, today I was writing my comps paper (on speaker choice in the needs doing alternation), and found myself typing the word “e-mail” into the paper. It just felt right in that situation. And that’s why I don’t want to be tied down to just one form or the other; sometimes the dispreferred form is just better for a given task.

I’m bringing this up not to bore you with the details of my personal life, nor to toss in a plug for my upcoming paper, (although these are both unintended benefits) but because I wanted an excuse to revisit the hyphenation question and give a few arguments against a few arguments that the hyphen is necessary. Commenter mike — who, by the way, has a nice blog and a great outlook on grammar — suggested that this website had some “not-unreasonable” arguments for the hyphen. The arguments didn’t seem unreasonable, but also the author took pains to condescend to people like me and Mike and Donald Knuth, who use email unselfconsciously. And so I was forced to take pains to point out some flaws in these arguments for e-mail.

First off, the author claims that “Established publications edited by grown-ups” use e-mail. We’re so predictable, those of us engaged in this prescriptivist/descriptivist war, huh? The prescriptivists call the descriptivists ill-educated, or child-like, or focused on the lowest common denominator, or claim that we’re opening the gates to language barbarians. The descriptivists call the prescriptivists bloody-minded pedants, cantankerous old cads, or angry old coots. And so on. (Some muckrakers might even go so far as to attempt to claim that I have at times in the past engaged in such sophomoric name-calling, but I’m nearly positive that they’re mistaken.)

Anyway, the author had best hope that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Reuters News Service, and the Guardian don’t catch wind of this slight. I think they all like to think of themselves as established and edited by adults — well-educated and grammatically precise adults, no less. Ditto the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists email as the preferred spelling of the noun and as an acceptable spelling of the verb. And it first attests email in 1982.

Okay, so respectable grown-up publications use email. Next point: e-mail is not a compound word, but rather a word headed by a single letter abbrevation for electronic. Thus the hyphen should be retained because “no initial-letter-based abbreviation in the history of the English language has ever morphed into a solid word”. At first, I couldn’t think of any example of this either. The author cites A-frame as one example, but in this case, the A isn’t short for anything, so we’re not looking at quite the same situation. Better examples would be A-bomb and H-bomb, short for atomic and hydrogen bombs. However, even this isn’t quite the same situation, because A and H aren’t productive prefixes in English, at least as far as I’m aware. It’s not like I can say A-clock and have people figure out I mean atomic clock. It seems to me that the e- prefix is relatively unprecedented, so you can’t dismiss hyphen removal out of respect for the past. Both e and i have established themselves as productive prefixes without hyphens: iGoogle, iPod, iMac; eHarmony, ecard, eBay.  I’m inclined to say these prefixes are proving themselves able to operate without a hyphen, regardless of what previous initial-letter-prefixes did.

And, finally, about the pronunciation of the unhyphenated version. No one but a contrarian would read the word email with the wrong pronunciation*; it’s common enough that people have memorized how it’s pronounced, and no reasonable mispronunciation of email sounds like another word. It is entirely possible for a word-initial e to be read as a long e [i: in IPA]; witness evil. And compounding/prefixing/suffixing words has always led to pronunciations that aren’t what you’d expect: cooccur, baseball, modeled. We are readers of English — complaining that a word doesn’t sound like it’s spelled is like complaining that a part of the ocean is too wet.

Summary: Look, there are arguments that e-mail is better with a hyphen, and there’re arguments that it’s better without one. None of them is compelling. Use the form you want.

[*An old (but not necessarily contrarian) potter could also confuse it with the word email, as in a type of ink used on porcelain, derived from the French word for "enamel". This word is pronounced with an "eh" sound at the beginning. However, I can't find this word attested on the internet, so I think the possibility of confusion is minor at the most.]

p.s.: I’m probably going to post quite sparingly for the next three to four weeks because I have to pound out my comps paper if I want to remain a graduate student. And I do, because it’s a pretty sweet lifestyle.

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