What Is Wrong With “Emails”?

What Is Wrong With Emails

I was reading a Jonathan Chait column and he used the word “emails” a dozen times. (Okay, seven emails.) I hate this. The war is over, of course. But I will have my say.

A Brief History of Mail

Here’s my problem: there was once a time when we had no email. We had something that worked wonderfully well. We called it “mail.” People would write down words on paper. Very often, all the words were spelled correctly because the people knew how to spell most words and when they weren’t sure, they looked them up in a big book called a dictionary.

No red lines appeared under supposedly misspelled words.

They would then fold one or more of these pieces of paper they had written on, stick them in an envelope, apply a stamp (or something similar — it evolved), and have a mail carrier deliver it to someone else. It worked great.

An Even Briefer History of Email

But then came ARPANET.

Here’s a fun fact for you all: the first network connection on what would become ARPANET was just between two computers. They sent the word “LOGIN” from one computer to the other. But only two characters made it before the network crashed. That was at the surprisingly high speed (for the time) of 56 kilobits per second.

Obviously, things improved quickly. And before long people invented a mailing system on the network. It was not written by Shiva Ayyadurai. (Note, email systems on intranets date back to the early 1970s.)

When we all decided on the word “email,” it was short for “electronic mail” — a term widely used in the early days.

Then Stupid People Showed Up

It made sense. Computer scientists are easily as picky as editors. So one might say, “My email is really piling up; I’ve got to get to it.” That’s because you would say, “My mail is really piling up; I’ve got to get to it.”

But no literate person would say, “I’ve got a mail I’ve got to get to the postman.” But otherwise literate people have no trouble saying, “I’ve got an email I’ve got to send.”

The Obviousness of “email” and “emails” Usage

The proper sentence would be, “I’ve got an email message I’ve got to send.” Right? Isn’t that obvious?!

You have no idea how old I feel right now.

Grammar is Descriptive Not Prescriptive

Okay. You’re thinking, “What happened to that liberal grammarian, Frank?”

Nothing.

I’m just as liberal as I ever was. People understand it. It’s fine. I’m a sinner too. I checked earlier and there were 33 articles on Frankly Curious that include the word “emails.” Now there are 20, because I removed my writing abominations and a couple of editing abominations (where I didn’t fix another writer’s abomination).

The remaining ones are in quotes and there is one proper use of “emails.” I’ll come back to that.

So a significant number were by me. But as I’ve noted many times here: I do not edit any articles written by me.

The Dreaded “Emails”

There’s only one situation where I can justify “emails”: as a present perfect verb. For example, “She emails a lot of messages!” But you never “send a lot of emails,” just as you never “send a lot of mails.” Why? Because “mail” is plural.

Why do people think they need to add an “s” to “email” but not “mail”?! Because they are sloppy and don’t think. And… (This is the critical thing.) Publishing moves so fast now that little time is spent editing.

Why Not “Eletter”?

Email was an outgrowth of messaging systems. So you would think “email message” would just trip off the tongue. (Note: this is commonly written “drip off the tongue.” It’s one of those wonderful “wrong” usage cases that make great sense. Another example is “beat red.” I love these things.)

The real problem here is that there was never general acceptance of the term “eletter” or something similar. And most people will not type “email message” when “email” (as much as it drives me crazy) is just as clear.

But people did try. In the late 80s and early 90s, I commonly read “eletter” and similar things. But they never took off. And then the web came and a lot of ignorant people just overran us like zombies in Night of the Living Dead. And now that Hillary Clinton had so many “emails” and Bernie Sanders didn’t want to hear about her “damned emails” the war is so far over that I should give up.

The Current State

I won’t though. I’ll be one of those (probably apocryphal) Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II well into the 1950s.

So where are we? Well, for the time being, any time I edit a writer I fix this obnoxious usage (not that I’m perfect as already noted). And I will continue to do so until the day when someone who pays me says, “Our style is to use ’email’ rather than ’email message’.” And on my sites it will always be done in what I consider the right way. That is: the right way.

But I’m sure the day will come when someone will tell me to put “emails” as a noun in a style book. I’ve been writing on at least a semi-professional level for the last 25 years. And as I’ve noted, during that time, I’ve seen editing standards go down constantly. Even the books that are published today have so many more errors in them than they did two decades ago, it’s frightening.

Why I Care

Ultimately, editing (and writing, of course[1]) is about quality control. And the quality you are controlling is clarity. As much as I hate these uses of “email” and “emails,” I know they don’t normally cause confusion. They could, however — in rare cases. But my specific concern is just that this kind of usage is ugly.

My general concern is much more disturbing. Every language has its strengths and limitations. There are concepts that take a paragraph to describe in one language that other languages have single words for. And vice versa. It does not help the language to take two different words and replace them with one. It makes the language less precise. And we already have the mother of all problems: homophones.

I realize we are creating new words all the time. But they are new words for new things. Mail is mail — regardless of the mode of transport. That’s why we should have coined “eletter” or “ezipdingdong” or whatever.

And I feel even older now.

The Bottom Line: Read This!

It’s simple. Read your sentence without the “e.” If it sounds right, great! If it sounds wrong, change it. There are few grammatical matters that are easier than that.

Suppose you wrote, “Now that there is talk of some emails that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction.” Few people would complain. But try this sentence with a single character taken out, “Now that there is talk of some mails that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction.”

You’d never write that second sentence. So why not write, “Now that there is talk of some email that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction”? You have no reason other than laziness.

Postscript

My great fear is that people will begin to use “mail” as they use “email.” And that second sentence that I assume all readers find offensive will not only be accepted, but standard.

Now I feel as old as Dr Muñoz at the end of H P Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air”!


[1] Every writer edits and every editor writes. When I say I don’t edit my work here, I mean I don’t take the time to do even what passes as a professional edit today.

17 replies on “What Is Wrong With “Emails”?”

  1. paintedjaguar says:

    Tch. “Mail” isn’t grammatically plural. You don’t say “the mail ARE” any more than you would say “my collection ARE”. However “the MAILS are” is a perfectly fine construction. OK, that really refers to the delivery system rather than the contents but…

    Anyway, why get agitated about “emails” when half the population of the internet is still running around misusing “endear” by confusing the object and indirect object. If one doesn’t know how to use a word correctly… maybe don’t corrupt the language by trying to be fashionable? Also, will no one rid me of that troublesome management speak? As in “grow a business”, or “grow” my library”. If you are dealing with anything that’s not related to vegetation… just don’t. Your descendants will thank you. I will thank you. My blood pressure will certainly thank you.

    ** Poor grammar can be annoying, but I really HATE noxious political spin. A historical note: Despite Bernie’s disingenuity in that debate and despite all sorts of damning stuff contained in the communications of the Clintonites, the “Her Emails” scandal was primarily about Hillary’s attempt to evade public information laws via the premeditated and illegal use of a private server (and not a private account a la Colin Powell). Of course her complete disregard for security issues and law did bring up the issue of content.

    • James Fillmore says:

      Business lingo is infuriatingly meaningless. I suspect it comes from an intention to present the darker side of capitalism in a morally neutral fashion. The same way military lingo substitutes “collateral damage” for “dead kids” and so on.

      In the example you gave, “grow my business” generally refers to “stomp my competitors.” It’s something the Godfather would say. “I did what I had to do to grow my business.”

      Or take “multitasking.” That actually has two meanings, neither of which are pleasant. It can be an hiring supervisor stating that “this position requires multitasking,” corpo-speak for “we’re gonna dump a ton of crap on you and pay you squat.” Or it can be someone justifying their bullshit job title, saying “I’m multitasking” when what they mean is “I spend two hours a day doing actual work and the other six on Slack.” (Never was an “app” so aptly named.)

      Using this kind of gibberish language is a signifier; it tells others that you’ve bought in completely to their worldview. It’s a bit like yacht-club jerks who’ll insist you say “port/starboard” instead of “left/right.” Percival Chauncey Hingebottom III isn’t futzing around on his midlife-crisis status symbol; no, he’s drawn by the Lure Of The Sea. Failure to use the language indicates you don’t belong, you’re not a true believer.

      And that’s why resumes you see posted on LinkedIn and such sites are so hilariously nonsensical.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Ha! You don’t say “the data are” either, do you? I used to but I’ve given up. And professionally, I wrote in our style book, “Data: use as singular.” But “data” is plural. “Datum” is singular. When was the last time you read that word? Anyway, it doesn’t apply here because in that usage, “mail” is short for “collection of letters.” As I pointed out in the article homophones are the great pox on our language.

      Why do so many people think articles like this are written with me scowling into the monitor?! It is meant to multi-dimensional. Yes, I’m making a serious point. I’m also making fun of myself. And I fully accept the usage. I just don’t like it.

      But really, how is it that I can strategically place comments about how old I am in bold ending with a funny reference if you’ve read the story and not understand that the whole thing is meant to be at least somewhat cheeky?

      As for Bernie, I wasn’t criticizing him. I was using him as an example of how this is just common usage now.

  2. donosaur says:

    Sometimes, I want to punch people who use “text” as a verb. Does that make me a bad person? (My Webster’s New World shows thirteen separate definitions for the word–and every one of them is a noun.)

    • paintedjaguar says:

      We can be bad together. But at least your example doesn’t affect the meaning of the original usage and you can’t stop evolution. Joking aside though, when people misuse words like “endear” or “literally” in a way that reverses the meaning of the words, that really isn’t a such a trivial thing. Proper grammar, spelling, and vocabulary are tools for communication. Tools can be redesigned or improved, yes, but abusing tools such that they are unfit for purpose is a sin in my book.

      • Frank Moraes says:

        Is It Time to Say Goodbye to “Literally”?

        This is the same issue with IMHO I discussed in the comments here. If a word or acronym is used to mean to opposite things and both are used a substantial amount of the time, it needs to die — at least for writers who care to be clear.

        • Jurgan says:

          That’s why I’ve complained about “literally” being misused for a while now. I’m told “language evolves, don’t be prescriptivist!” Well, okay, but language should evolve towards more clarity, not less. It should also not waste time. Hence, my old bugbear of “ATM machine.” Adding “machine” doesn’t make things less clear, but it also doesn’t make it more clear, so it’s just a waste of two syllables.

          • Frank Moraes says:

            I understand. I’m a liberal, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions — obviously. I’ve probably already told you this because I know of your hatred of “ATM machine,” but ATM has not been an acronym for decades. I was present at the unveiling of the first ATM in my town (in the early 1970s). So I’m well aware of what it first stood for. I think you can live with “ATM machine” (as I do) by understanding that the acronym evolved into a word. A lot of people call them “cash machines.” The issue for people is that it is primarily a machine. So having an acronym that included “machine” in it (And at the end, no less!) was a mistake. It should have been an AT machine, not ATM. And at this point in time where many banks don’t even have tellers, maybe it is time to retire ATM altogether. “Cash machine” is really what it is. I never much liked them because I’m a very cash-oriented guy. But when they started allowing me to deposit cash, I was thrilled and now love them. If I could get them to dispense $100 bills, I’d never go in the bank!

            Regardless, “ATM machine” is just as clear as “ATM.” I understand your pain. Everyone who cares about language has things that drive them crazy. What I think is important, however, is for us to maintain perspective. It’s fine to internally roll your eyes when someone says “ATM machine.” But it isn’t all right to give them a lecture about how ATM is an acronym and so on. The only time I will do that is when I personally feel insulted. Recently, a friend said “hyper” when he meant to say “hypo.” And I stuttered because I was momentarily confused. But he thought that I was confused about the difference between the two and (very nicely) explained the difference. I let it drop, but it annoyed me. How could he think that I, of all people, wouldn’t know this?! What’s more, earlier in the conversation, he used the term “crocodile tears” incorrectly — thinking it meant big rather than insincere. So I waited a day and found a funny way to explain that I knew the difference between hyper and hypo and that he didn’t know what “crocodile tears” meant. But normally, I would never do that. And even when I did, I did it in the most friendly way possible. Actually, from the moment he used “crocodile tears” I was looking for a way to gently tell him because he hangs around a lot of literate people, and I don’t want him to embarrass himself. Although I think that’s a common mistake. But I never looked the term up. To me it was always obvious. But maybe that says more about my opinion of crocodiles at the time. Now I find them fascinating in how they cooperate.

            As for literally: yes. I am trying to remove it from my vocabulary (even though I use it traditionally in almost all cases). And as an editor, I now define it as “fluff.” And that means, “Hey writer, you don’t get 10 cents when you write ‘literally’.” Freelance writers learn fast when it is about money. Not because they love money, but because it’s a hard job that doesn’t pay well and requires them to work really fast.

            • Jurgan says:

              Have you ever said “ATM” and had some not know what you meant until you add “machine” to the end? I haven’t. If there’s genuine confusion about it, fine, but I can’t imagine that happening. “PIN Number” is acceptable, I think, because some people might be confused if you just said “what’s your PIN?”

            • Jurgan says:

              Anyway, I’ve tried to relax about the redundant acronyms. It can be hard because my OCD disorder makes them sound like nails on a chalkboard, but for the most part I can let it go. Maybe the mathematician in me just doesn’t like wasted symbols and speech. Clarity is priority one, concision is priority two in most cases. And that ties back into the subject of this article- spending extra time to say “eletter” or “email message” doesn’t increase clarity but it does take more time. So I’m afraid I can’t get behind this one. I’m okay with the idea of email as plural, but adding extra syllables to the singular “email” just seems like a waste of time.

              • James Fillmore says:

                I think I have to give you this round, on points — especially for typing “OCD disorder.” Clarity is first. You don’t want people looking at a block of prose and going “whaaaaaaat?” even if it is, “literally,” correct.

                • Frank Moraes says:

                  I haven’t been following this, but I’ve been meaning to write an article contradicting all of Orwell’s Six Rules of writing. It’s taken a long time to get here but I will do what I consider very ugly stuff for the sake of clarity. I don’t think it is ever necessary to do something that is really Wrong. But just yesterday, I added a comma to a writer’s article that some grammarians would say was wrong. But without it, the reader would have been confused. We must never forget what we are here to do (unless we are Gertrude Stein or such) is to communicate. And if you fail at that, nothing else matters.

                  • James Fillmore says:

                    Orwell’s rules are a corrective, to me. Once you’ve internalized them, you can toss them aside. Like playing an instrument; master the basics first, then do your own thing.

                    I was taught in high school and college to write the kind of wordy, intellectual-sounding shit Orwell was pushing back against. What mattered was making a term paper long enough, not what was in it; the instructor has read thousands of papers exactly the same. Follow orders, meet arbitrary deadlines, churn out mind-numbing product; that’s an education which prepares you for the Business World.

                    Once you’ve learned that style of writing, it takes a major mental effort to unlearn it; to realize that the most important part of writing is thinking. Orwell’s rules are a great way to start unlearning that style, and to start thinking. But, yeah, once you’ve gotten term paper style out of your head, use “splendiferous” any time you can. Because the word is splendiferous!

    • Frank Moraes says:

      You are asking me of the “I will die on the hill of emails” if you are a bad person?! Even the most liberal grammarian still suffers from some constructions. I suffer from this one, but I know it’s just fine.

      I’m curious what you would replace “text (v)” with? Hopefully not “message (v)” because that’s business-speak. Would you prefer people say something like, “I will send you a text message”? (Or even without the message?

      It doesn’t bother me, but we all have our own unique tics!

      • donosaur says:

        I think “send” is a fine verb, myself. We send letters, send messages, and even send occasional “invisible signals,” whatever those are. And it’s really no big deal. I don’t punch people even when they use “bring” and “take” interchangeably.

        Oh, and Sam Cooke? He sends me. Honest he do. ;)

        • Frank Moraes says:

          Right. I’ll rant here. I’ll change writers’ work when I’m editing. But I would never stop someone in a conversation and start pontificating about my views on the history of the word “email.” But I do find it fun to dig into these things. And I know there are at least some people who enjoy reading them. So that’s that. But don’t mention Sam Cooke to me. Now I’m going to have to spend the whole day listening to him!

          God, he was so great!

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