Nobody knows how to spell email. You might say, ‘nobody knows how to spell e-mail,’ but you’d be wrong. Or would you?

The issue of email vs. e-mail clearly raises blood pressures across the world. At the time of writing, the spelling question is right at the top of the Wikipedia article on e-mail. Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Email Experience Council has declared the official term to be email. They’ve even got a petition.

The Compact OED in Britain allows email, while both Merriam-Webster and the Chicago Manual of Style in the States demand e-mail. It’s interesting to note that the OED prides itself on reflecting trends in spelling and word usage—they were in the news last year for dropping 16,000 hyphens from the Shorter Dictionary (no jokes, please)—while Chicago takes a more dictatorial stance. However, this isn’t really an Atlantic question.

Let’s have a look at the word in the wild:

  • Apple uses email
  • Microsoft usually uses e-mail but sometimes email
  • Adobe uses both
  • Google uses email
  • Yahoo uses email
  • CNN uses e-mail
  • Perhaps maintaining the famous “BBC balance”, the BBC website uses e-mail within news stories but seems to use email on the rest of the site
  • The New York Times uses e-mail
  • direct.gov.uk uses email
  • usa.gov uses both

There’s a definite trend here. People who write about technology tend to go for e-mail, while the people who actually work with technology either use email or both. I think that’s a good argument in favour of email.

The argument that supporters of e-mail often make is the lack of precedent. X-ray has never become Xray, T-shirts are not Tshirts, and you drive round an S curve rather than a Scurve. However, these are very specific words which use their initial letter for its shape rather than any specific meaning. If you’re interested, they’re covered in 7.67 of the Chicago Manual of Style. (The possible exception to this is X-ray, where the “X” simply stands for unknown—see also The X-Files and Cold War B-movie X for Unknown.) (Again, the “B” in B-movie isn’t an abbreviation. Even if it was, I don’t see bmovie ever happening.)

Regarding other e-words, the OED still supports e-commerce, e-government, etc. This doesn’t have to be a contradiction, though. The hyphen doesn’t come packed into all words by default. It’s used specifically where it’s needed to aid comprehension. When it’s no longer required it can be removed, as shown by the OED’s latest revision. Unhyphenated, words like ecommerce and egovernment might trip us over, so they need a helping hand. Nobody is seriously in danger of not understanding email. (’What’s this? Email? Some French chap trying to communicate with me through my computer, perhaps. But…how?’)

What we have in e-mail is a spelling which has come into existence and then become antiquated, all within the space of a few short decades. As Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter OED, comments in the BBC article linked above, e-mail—with the hyphen—is ’starting to look like something your grandmother might write.’

At least there’s one thing that everybody is agreed on: whether it’s e-mail or email, it isn’t capitalised. Unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence, obviously.

Note: this post first appeared on my old blog, The Serial Comma, in September 2007. That domain now forwards here, and there are a few links pointing in to that page, so I’ve updated it and reposted it here.