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Opinion

Column:: A Word, Please: Stylebook holdout abandons the hyphen in email, but detractors remain

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The word e-mail has been changing to email for years, according to many sources. The last hold-out on the grammar issue, the Chicago Manual of Style, just announced it was changing its stance and going with email.
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E-mail is dead. Or close to it. You’ll never get another e-mail. You’ll never send another e-mail.

Sure, you’ll compose and receive plenty of electronic messages. But those are no longer e-mail. They’re now, as officially as official gets, email.

The hyphen has been steadily fading from “e-mail” for years. The Associated Press Stylebook, which since the technology’s earliest days explicitly called for “e-mail,” abandoned the hyphen about a decade ago.

Everyday users, in my anecdotal experience, ditched the hyphen even earlier.

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AP’s counterpart in the book-publishing world, the Chicago Manual of Style, has been the holdout.

As the rest of the world slid toward “email,” this influential guide stood firm. It’s e-mail, Chicago insisted. Hyphen included.

Those days are over. In its most recent edition, Chicago finally changed its position. “Email” is now its official recommendation.

You don’t have to follow their rule or AP’s. Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and Webster’s New World, allow “e-mail” as an alternative to “email.”

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So you can write “e-mail” if you want to. But you won’t. Together, AP and Chicago govern the vast majority of your reading material, with AP style observed by most news media and Chicago style by most book and magazine publishers.

Anyone who holds firm on “e-mail” will be swimming against the tide.

Regular readers of this column know I try to accept change in the language. What looks like an erosion of standards in the short term looks more like the natural evolution of language when you see it from a higher historical vantage point.

So I don’t fuss about change. When Internet gave way to internet, it didn’t take me long to adjust. When Web became web and World Wide Web disappeared almost completely, I fell in line.

But “email” is tough for me to accept. Years ago, I was influenced by someone else’s opinion and, to this day, I can’t shake his logic.

Here’s the passage in “Lapsing Into a Comma” by the late Bill Walsh that still holds sway over me.

“When the shortened form of ‘electronic mail’ first began appearing in print, the question was whether it should be E-mail or e-mail. The lowercase form has clearly prevailed,” Walsh wrote in 2000.

“My faith in human intelligence still hasn’t recovered from the development that followed: The predominant spelling among the general public has become ‘email,’ which is an abomination,” he added.

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Walsh’s reason makes a lot of sense.

“No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word,” he wrote.

His examples include A-frame, B-movie, C-rations, D-Day, F layer, G-string, H-bomb, I-beam, J-school, N-word, O-ring, Q rating, T-shirt and Z particle.

You have to admit, Walsh had a point.

And there’s more. Email, Walsh wrote, “doesn’t even look right; at first glance, the e in email begs to be pronounced unaccented, as a schwa (‘uh-mail’). Setting the letter apart makes it clear that the letter is a letter and that the one-letter syllable is accented.”

You can see why Walsh’s words, when I read them some 15 years ago, had a lasting effect on me.

I would add something to them. E-book, e-reader, e-commerce and pretty much every other term that uses “e” as shorthand for “electronic” still takes a hyphen.

That’s proof that the hyphen makes sense until widespread usage renders it unnecessary.

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Of course, my feelings are immaterial.

“Email” is the clear winner. As an editor tasked with following Chicago for some of my work and AP for other clients, I have no say in the matter. Email it is. I’ll try to get used to it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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