Above the Law

Two weeks ago, the New York Times officially dropped the hyphen in e-mail because of “popular demand,” according to its editor for news presentation, Patrick LaForge. The Associated Press Stylebook changed its style to the unhyphenated email in 2011, but it retained the hyphen in sister terms such as e-book, e-commerce, and e-business.

On the other side of the fence, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. 2010) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed. 2011) continue to retain the hyphen.

Because the e- is not a prefix but a stand-in for electronic, some editors still prefer the hyphenated form e-mail. In the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), I rated the use of email for e-mail at Stage 4 in my 5-stage Language-Change Index. That is to say, by 2009 the solid form had become virtually universal but was opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots). But has the use of email now moved to Stage 5, where the form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics)? Certainly the flip-flop by the New York Times — the Gray Lady herself — is a big blow to the stalwart defenders of e-mail.

In Lapsing into a Comma, Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copyeditor, called the unhyphenated email “an abomination.” That was in 2000 — when e-mail was still dominant. He observed: “No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word — a few are split, and the rest are hyphenated.” He gave these examples: A-frame, B-movie, D-day, T-shirt, and X-ray. Walsh’s further argument for keeping the hyphen stems from pronunciation: “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. E! E! Eeeeeee!”

Walsh and other stalwarts have cogent grounds. But the tide of history will be against the form, and email will doubtless be the only form most people will have ever seen a few years from now. But I still call it Stage 4, not 5. Maybe with the switch by the New York Times, the solid form is about Stage 4.7.

Sources:
Garner’s Modern American Usage xxxv, 300 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 311 (3d ed. 2011).
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. 2010) (using e-mail throughout).
Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma 16 (2000).
The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 94 (2013).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 405 (11th ed. 2011).

Thanks to Thomas G. Stack for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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