Word Routes

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.]

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday May 7th 2010, 3:15 AM
Comment by: Edmund S. (Bronx, NY)
In my way of usage, spam is both plural and singular, email, not so much...
Friday May 7th 2010, 4:53 AM
Comment by: SIM S. (Wah Fu Estate Hong Kong)
Why not "e-message(s)" for written text and e-mail/email for all mail made via cyber highway? Spam is a spam or many spams. "Spam mail" to me is acceptable as both mass noun/collective adjective.

Across the Atlantic, the 40 ever-living old people in France have also once teased their advanced neuro-composite to coin the word "courriel" for electronic mail/messages. Just that our discussion is on the agreement and nature of "email", theirs was a device more far-reaching: the official name of electronic correspondence in the great froggy French language.
Friday May 7th 2010, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
One quibble; it's time to drop the dash in email.
Friday May 7th 2010, 8:13 AM
Comment by: Paul G. (Collegeville, PA)
I use both spam and e-mail as mass nouns, and I depend on the context to define the quantity.

(I'd rather keep the dash in e-mail, BTW, because I think it serves as a clue for the eye to define the type of mail.)
Friday May 7th 2010, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Cynthia S K. (Linthicum Heights, MD)
I use e-mail as a mass noun, but then I'm older and remember when letters arrived "in" the mail, not "on" the computer. Being an abbreviation of electronic mail, e-mail is appropriately hyphenated -in my book. Besides, I just like the way it looks when hyphenated. The older I get the more I tend to write in a way that expresses my personality, eschewing "rules".

Having said all that, I'm going to adopt Sim S's suggestion (see her comment above), "Why not 'e-message(s)' for written text and e-mail/email for all mail made via cyber highway?" After all, electronic correspondence can rarely be elevated to the level of the lofty "letter", it's not usually much more that a quick "message", sort of like a quick note scribbled on the back of an envelope and left on the kitchen table that might be used to alert family members that you've gone for a walk.
So its "e-message/s" for me!
Friday May 7th 2010, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I've long dropped the hyphen in email, and I do treat it as a count noun. Not so with spam, which I still use as a mass noun. I think the initial e in email will stick, fossilized there, even as email prevails over other forms of mail; if the word were longer, it would probably shed the e.
Friday May 7th 2010, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I often but not always use email and spam as singular and plural nouns, like sheep or deer, but I don't know either the history or the rules (if there are any) for non-s plurals.
Friday May 7th 2010, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Perhaps the plural usage is governed by the singular. "I received an email," has always been a periphrastic version of "I received an email message." Therefore, it would seem wrong to try to force us to say, "It was one of six email I received on the topic."
Friday May 7th 2010, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Michael L. and Don H.: To clarify, we're talking about e-mail as a count noun ("I got an e-mail / six e-mails") or a mass noun ("I got some e-mail"). Using it as a mass noun is a different kettle of fish from using it as a count noun with a "zero" ( s-less) plural, a la sheep and deer. AFAIK, no one has advocated zero-plural usage like "I got six e-mail."

Arnold Zwicky's " Counting Chad" handout linked above is useful in understanding the difference between mass nouns and zero-plural count nouns. See also my 2008 Language Log post, " 'Chad' back in the news."
Friday May 7th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Duain W.
While tackling the vagaries of email vs e-mail vs emails vs e-mails, would you PLEASE speak to the difference between hyphens and dashes? These two words seem to be used interchangeably, a scandalous practice I find to be worse than the "to-drop-or-not-to-drop-the-hyphen/dash-in-e-mail/email" discourse.
Friday May 7th 2010, 12:51 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Historically mail came once a day so it is obviously singular made up of parts including magazines, letters, advertisements etc.

Email and spam come several times a day. Most people use email when talking about a group made up of a variety of messages. When substituting email for the term, message, email becomes plural. I received 100 emails today.

I don't use the, -, in email when typing for electronic consumption as I'm a slow typist and it takes too long. When the formality of paper is required I add the dash along with a number of useless archaic rules.

Friday May 7th 2010, 5:49 PM
Comment by: Laura A. (Raleigh, NC)
Many folks don't remember, but in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the United States mail came TWICE a day! And it took only ONE day for a letter from Florida to be delivered in New York.

Anyhow . . . linguistically, I'd say "email" is akin to "dinner." One serves DINNER to a thousand people. One may also serve a thousand DINNERS to a thousand people. So far as spam goes, it comes in a can and will always be simply Spam. One does not say "I have a can full of spams," but rather, "I have a can full of spam."

Speaking of all this, I find it interesting that George Washington had a larger vocabulary than we do (speaking of everyday usage, I caveat).

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

A Singular Blog
Some people now use the word "blog" to refer to a single blog post.
Not to be Counted On
The count/mass distinction can stump learners of English.
Predicting New Words
The 2000 discussion of "chads" came and went quickly, says Dr. Allan Metcalf.