Language Notes

Previous ] Home ] Up ] Next ]


by Lionel E. Deimel


Increasingly, I hear people talking about sending or receiving “e-mails,” by which they mean e-mail messages. This usage is distinct from “e-mail” as a collective noun analogous to “mail,” as in “I received lots of mail today.” “I received lots of e-mail today” is well-established usage, but “I received three e-mails today,” is relatively new and, to my ear at least, jarring. Advocates of this new usage would argue that referring to “three e-mails” is clear and and concise, and that “three e-mail messages”  is painfully long. Well, maybe.

Let me first point out that no one says “I received three mails today,” although one might speak of receiving “three letters” or, more generally, “three pieces of mail.” The “pieces of” construction has long been used with “e-mail,” but it contains as many syllables as “e-mail messages,” so there is a conciseness argument to be made against it.  I recently even heard someone on the radio speak of returning from vacation to “a hundred e-mail.” This usage seems rare, and its postal analogue, “I received three mail today,” is likewise unheard of.

It is probably the unacceptability of “mails” in the postal context that makes “e-mails” seem as strange as it does. After all, much of the terminology used to refer to e-mail has been adopted without change from the postal world. We write, send, and receive both kinds of mail; we include enclosures; and we reply and forward. Moreover, admitting “e-mail” as both a collective and non-collective noun allows us to speak both of “sending e-mail” and “sending an e-mail,” phrases that are not Computer monitor with mailbox flag synonymous, yet are appallingly similar. Miscommunication is likely if the “an” is insufficiently articulated or if the listener subconsciously inserts an “an” where none was spoken.

Nonetheless, it is easy to sympathize with those seeking a brief way of referring to piece of e-mail. “Message” by itself will not do, as it might refer to a telephone message, fax message, pager message, etc. Eschewing “e-mail,” there seems to be no word available that refers exclusively to an e-mail-delivered missive. In fact, this seems just as true of postal mail—words like “letter,” “bill,” and “flyer” refer more properly to content than to delivery mechanism. As e-mail assumes more of the communications burden in our society, we may find ourselves using terms like “postal letter” as distinguished from “e-mail letter.”

At least for now, we tend to call pieces of e-mail “messages,” whatever their form or content. If we need to identify the enabling technology, therefore, perhaps “e-message” might be a useful term for a single e-mail message (“I received three e-messages today”). For those insisting on brevity, consider “e-note” (“I received three e-notes today”), although this might be confused with “c-note,” to which it is completely unrelated.

As much as I dislike “e-mail” for “e-mail message,” I fear that its currency favors its achieving widespread acceptance. There are ominous precedents. In cases where an adjective referring to a new technology is attached to an existing noun, the need for conciseness sometimes leads to the promotion of the adjective to a standalone noun. “E-mail message” becomes “e-mail” by the same mechanism through which “transistor radio” became “transistor” and “microwave oven” became “microwave.” (Curiously, “transistor” isn’t heard much today, presumably because the technology has changed again, and discrete transistors are virtually extinct in consumer devices.) This process is at least a little strange, in that we are left with a word that emphasizes a particular implementation over the function actually performed.

— LED, 2/14/2000, revised 9/3/2001

My thinking about “e-mail” has not changed, though it was discouraging to find the clause “who un-Canadianly boasted about it in e-mails” in a “Talk of the Town” piece in the March 4, 2002, issue of The New Yorker.

— LED, 2/27/2002

Previous Home Up Next

Send mail to Lionel Deimel with questions or comments about Lionel Deimel’s Farrago.
Copyright © 2000-2019 by Lionel Deimel. All rights reserved.