On Language: Welcome to the email combat zone

From the New York Times Magazine, Aug. 11, 2002


We had virtually finished our book on email and other virtual writing before we gave much thought to the origins of the word virtual. In its latest incarnation (used like digital, e- and cyber- to describe something existing in the electronic ether), virtual is even more ubiquitous than Elvis memorabilia on eBay.

It was probably inevitable that scientists in the last half of the 20th century would seize on virtual to mean simulated or carried out by means of computers. Long before Univac—since the mid-17th century, in fact—virtual had come to mean existing in effect rather than in reality. And the adverb virtually meant something akin to “practically” or “almost,” as in “virtually everyone knows Pepys.”

But virtual has a much older meaning, and you can forget those nerdy, computer-jock associations. Vir comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning “man” (think “virile”), and the Latin word for virtue, virtus, means excellence or potency or skill. The adjectives virtual and virtuous were used in the 14th century to mean possessed of manly, even warriorlike, qualities: strength, power, valor, heroism. A virtuous swordsman would think nothing of impaling a few of the enemy before breakfast.

Over the centuries, virtuous discarded its manly character in favor of a slightly later meaning: moral purity (although the old sense of “skillful” or “able” survives in the term virtuoso). These days a virtuous person is a righteous one, sword or no sword, and the terms virtual and virtuous have gone their separate ways.

Which brings us back to email. A lot of words come to mind when we think of virtual writing, but virtuous isn’t one of them. Warriorlike, perhaps. Even the nicest people sometimes adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude when they sit down at the computer. As a result, too many email exchanges resemble hand-to-hand combat.

Herewith, a report from the trenches. A friend of ours in the entertainment business complains that all the abrupt, rude and belligerent email he gets at work has turned his electronic in-basket into “a testosterone-enhanced war zone.”

“Emails are forms of assault,” he told us. “Sentences are shortened to be only commands, written in the form of quick barks. In fact, I’ve been in cognitive therapy for the last year trying to come to terms with how much email upsets me, believe it or not.”

The very structure of email encourages behavior that’s nasty, brutish and short. The blank subject line is a signal to state your business and get on with it, and almost precludes a warm message. The To and From fields seem to make greetings and closings redundant or at least unnecessary. All in all, it’s the ideal breeding ground for rudeness.

What’s more, the things so many people like about email—the speed, the informality, the brevity, the disengagement—give words a sharp edge. Clipped, telegraphed messages seem brusque and curt. Small slights are magnified. A tiny, half-joking pout looks like a major hissy fit. A mild suggestion sounds like a dressing-down. And attempts at subtlety, irony, or sarcasm land with a thud more often than not. As for the quality of the writing, perhaps some things are better left unsaid.

So what’s the answer? Is there no room for civility online? Maybe the real question is, What is email, anyway?

When we polled friends and acquaintances, most thought an email fell somewhere between a letter and a phone call. Not surprisingly, those who thought email was closer to letter-writing were pickier about the niceties—manners as well as spelling, grammar, punctuation and such. Those who thought email was closer to speech were more likely to ignore the pleasantries along with their spell-checkers. Swell people, every one of them, but you can imagine which group came across as the more civil—and readable.

Why do good people send bad email? Maybe they forget that what they’re doing at their computers is writing. And the purpose of writing—whether with a pen, a typewriter or a laptop—is to connect with others. When people write well, they connect. When they write badly, they don’t.

With that in mind, we’ve tried to imagine the kind of virtual message we’d like to get, a Platonic ideal of email perfection. Here’s what our dream email looks like.

  • It’s written in good English: clear, plain and, above all, understandable.
  • It’s polite, asking instead of demanding, and using such quaint terms as “Please,” “Thank you” and “Sorry.” (Our ideal emailers never send in anger. They sleep on it.)
  • It gets to the point in the first screenful. We computer users have short attention spans.
  • It has a helpful subject line; the reader know at a glance what it’s about and how urgent it is.
  • It’s discreet, and protects the privacy of everyone involved.
  • It mentions what it’s replying to (a cryptic “Fine” or “Nope” or “Maybe” isn’t enough).
  • It capitalizes properly. Writing that’s all upper- or lowercase is hard to read.
  • It uses shorthand sparingly. Not everybody understands those smileys, abbreviations and techie terms.
  • It has obviously been reread—yes, just like “real” writing.

Fortunately the Age of Email is still young. It’s not too late to put the virtue back into virtual.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are the authors of “You Send Me,” a book about email and other online writing. O’Conner’s other books about language are “Woe Is I” and “Words Fail Me.” William Safire is on vacation.