Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Counting E-mails (and Spams)
With new technology comes new language, and with new language comes new confusion over usage. Here's a question that people have been puzzling over for a couple of decades now: if we don't pluralize mail as mails, why should we pluralize e-mail as e-mails?
In my capacity as "On Language" columnist for The New York Times Magazine, I've tackled this issue in my latest response to a reader's question, which you'll find available in the Magazine's online home this weekend. (A programming note: from now on, the responses will run online as free-standing pieces, alternating with my biweekly column, so I'll be maintaining my Web presence from week to week.)
I fielded the question from Ashley Mergen, a recent graduate from George Washington University, but I've been noticing similar queries in online usage forums going back to the mid-'90s. Consider this exchange on the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english from May 1996, in a thread entitled "Is the word 'E-mail' countable?":
In this case, "e-mail" _means_ "e-letter." It's just a shift in the language er something.
I dare say; but why has it happened only for the compound? No one says "I got three mails from my sweetie yesterday".
The plural I've heard most commonly is "e-mail messages." That might be because the people around me fear that if I hear them say "e-mails" I'll defenestrate 'em.
Defenestration? Clearly this issue stirred strong emotions. The previous year, in August 1995, New York Times business editor Tim Race reported on the results of a reader survey that found that most people already found it acceptable to treat e-mail as a count noun, allowing an e-mail in the singular or e-mails in the plural. Race couldn't hide his disappointment: "The people have spoken. And they are tone deaf."
But as I suggest to young Ms. Mergen, that ship has sailed long ago. Most everyone feels comfortable with countable e-mail now (even if the New York Times style guide continues to recommend e-mail message as the preferable form). But what about spam, in the sense of "unwanted e-mail"? The jury is still out on that one, I think. Some people are fine with saying, "I got five spams in my inbox today," while others would prefer to say spam messages or spam e-mails, keeping spam a mass noun like the canned meat that gave rise to the term (via a Monty Python sketch).
If you're interested in reading about the linguistic ins-and-outs of counting e-mail(s) and spam(s), check out this handout that the linguist Arnold Zwicky prepared for the 2001 Stanford Semantic Fest. The title of the handout is "Counting Chad," since back then chad was all the rage following the 2000 Florida recount. Like e-mail and spam, chad can sometimes be treated as a mass noun and sometimes as a count noun. Also be sure to check out "Not to be Counted On," the August 2008 installment in our Language Lounge series by Orin Hargraves, which takes a look at the tricky count/mass distinction more generally.
How do you feel about countable e-mail (or email, if you consider the hyphen passé)? Do you think we'll all be calling it mail pretty soon, and reserving snail mail or postal mail as a retronym for a bygone mode of communication? Let us know in the comments below!
[Update: You can now read my response to the reader's question here.]