The Grammarphobia Blog

Why isn’t “email” more like “mail”?

Q: I have been an Internet technologist and heavy email user for 20 years. I love Woe Is I, but I find your use of “an email” and “a few hundred emails” really grating. I’ll admit that this has become common usage, but I cannot understand why you would condone it. Until the Internet went public, “email,” like “mail,” was a mass noun. To me this makes a lot of sense. I certainly wouldn’t say “I wrote my grandmother a mail”; nor would I write “the postman pushed several mails through the slot.” Why not “I just received three pieces of spam, two replies regarding the bid, and a video clip of Wendy’s dog,” rather than “I just received six emails”? Or why not say “I’ll send it to you as an email attachment” instead of “I’ll email it to you”? Isn’t meaning being lost?

A: When I wrote the second edition of Woe Is I, there were style issues to be decided: how to write the word “email” (hyphen? capital?); whether to use it as a verb (“to email”); whether to use it as a noun meaning a single email message (“an email”); whether to use “emails” as the plural form (“three emails”), and so on. At the time, usage was all over the map. I weighed the alternatives, took into account what newspapers and book publishers were doing, kept abreast of changing dictionary usage, tuned in to what email users themselves were writing and saying, and most of all tried to anticipate emerging preferences and decide what seemed most natural and most likely to enter the public lexicon.

I think I made the right choices. There are no good reasons to prohibit using “email” as a verb or as a noun in both singular and plural forms. Otherwise we’re stuck with confining “email” to an adjective or to a generic noun meaning the medium itself.

Yes, meaning is being lost if you say “I just received six emails” instead of “I just received three pieces of spam, two replies regarding the bid, and a video clip of Wendy’s dog.” But there’s nothing to prevent you from being more specific if you want to be. Lots of people do. The point is, we have choices. In the end, individuals don’t decide what becomes “acceptable” English. The world at large does. Like it or not (and I don’t like a lot of it), common usage eventually becomes the standard. Thanks for your thoughtful email message. (Is that OK?)