do u mail or Do you email?
November 19, 2001 5:20 AM   Subscribe

do u mail or Do you email? Hyphenless email drops the e as Josh Davis retreats to his virtual cave.
posted by rory (31 comments total)
On the flip-side of this article, I heard anecdotally last week of a middle-aged school-teacher who refuses to answer any email that doesn't begin 'Dear Mrs'.
posted by rory at 5:21 AM on November 19, 2001

Like Alice Rawsthorn, "I'm timewarped in (much as I hate to admit it) the middle age of emailing." I cannot stand text messaging shorthand (like "hey josh >how u doin>hope things r cool with u>mail me back if u r into..."). Actually, I cannot understand it: reading an e-mail (or MeFi message) written that way takes me forever, as I have to sound it out, letter by letter.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:46 AM on November 19, 2001

It's nice to know I write better emails than the "reigning god" of web design. And he's older than I am.
posted by atom128 at 6:05 AM on November 19, 2001

I am old guy--got first computer for 60-th birthday--and though I know next to nothing about code and web design I liked the post, for which, thanks.
posted by Postroad at 6:07 AM on November 19, 2001

Do people really use "mail" for "email" now? This isn't in my experience common, but perhaps this indicates just how long-in-the-tooth we Gen X'ers now are.
posted by BT at 6:21 AM on November 19, 2001

I'm tired of e-everything. You don't have an e-business, you either have a business or you don't. You don't do e-banking, you do banking. I hope that we've all woken up from the dream in which the "e-" was a magical token. Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction between mail and email. Of all the places where the "e" could be dropped, this isn't a good one.
posted by yesster at 6:32 AM on November 19, 2001

I think it depends on context. I mean, one of the oldest Unix programs was called .... mail. And the backbone of the internet is ... sendmail. Not email; not sendemail. I think the "e" is there for the times when a distinction is needed. You might yell at a coworker across the cafeteria, "I'll mail you about the meeting!" In the context of a corporate mail system that you all use, the meaning would normally be obvious.

And I don't object in principle to IRC-IM-speak, nor the much worse SMS-speak. They're just inappropriate at a forum like Metafilter, and ideally won't appear very often. We speak in complete sentences here. But I wouldn't want to use a lot of participial phrases if I were doing the Verizon ad "SMS your friends at a concert because it's too loud" thing.
posted by dhartung at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2001

There was an article a year ago, I forget where (wish I still had the link), about how, within a corporation, emails sent from low-level employees up the chain were more carefully written (grammar, spelling, format, etc.); whereas letters from on high going down were far less careful.

I think, generally, some people care much more about the presentation and effectiveness of their communication (and, in a corporation, this concern is largely predicted by power-relations, no doubt). But it's hard to see a general pattern like the one described in the link here -- unless it turns out that fewer and fewer people are learning how to touch-type.

That said, it occurs to me how remarkable it is that almost everyone on MeFi capitalizes properly....
posted by mattpfeff at 8:11 AM on November 19, 2001

> Of all the places where the "e" could be dropped, this
> isn't a good one.

Maybe, but it's getting close to that time for me. I haven't sent a paper letter to anyone in months and months and I rarely check the metal box outside my door, whereas I send e-mail between 10 and 25 times a day and receive (counting junk) probably 100 messages or so a day.

When I think about mail, I think about electronic mail. When I tell friends that I'll "mail" or "send" something to them, I think they know (unless we're talking about a three-dimensional thing) that I mean I'll send it electronically.

Eventually (already?), "mail" will come to mean electronic mail for most people I correspond with, and then I'll have to use something like "snail mail" or "shipping" or "overnight" to make sure people know when I'm not talking about electronic mail.

> There was an article a year ago...

I remember that article, but I have no idea where I saw it.
posted by pracowity at 8:19 AM on November 19, 2001

Actually, mattpfeff, it doesn't surprise me so much (that people capitalize here) because I think that local context (i.e. where you're posting/who you're [e]mailing) tends to exert more power than we think. When you first come to MeFi, you see complete, punctuated sentences, and perhaps you are unconsciously moved to respond with same, even if you email in an uncapitalized chat-like flow.

(Above doesn't apply to clavdivs, who is a syntactic and punctuative law unto himself).

Sorry to have gotten a tad MeTa there -- anyway, pracowity does have a point. We're in some kind of switching point here. Most of my acquaintance still use "email," but now that I think about it, usually use "snailmail" to indicate physical mail.

Which is redundant I guess, and so I also guess one of them will have to go. And since "snail mail" is so visually appealling and horribly descriptive, "email" might well be withering away, e'en as I type.

Gah. I sound like Safire.
posted by BT at 8:29 AM on November 19, 2001

hehe troodat bt we shd endvr to figr out if this is all bllsht or sum form of linguistic evolution.
posted by scarabic at 8:41 AM on November 19, 2001

I think you're onto something there, mattpfeff; my last boss was a brevity junkie - usually one line replies that read 'noted' - whereas I in my lowly drudgery once churned out hundreds of superfluous words per email. But I do that less now. Is it just a factor of how long you've been using it? Hmm, since 1982 in my case, and I still say 'email' - but I suspect that's because 'I'll mail you.' sounds as wrong to my ears as 'I'll write you.' (for non-American English-speakers it's always 'I'll write to you.'). Whereas I'm happier to use a new word like 'email' as either verb or noun.

Of all the places where the "e" could be dropped...

Indeed. I'd rather read an email sent via electronic computer, modulator-demodulator and the telephonic communications networks than some lowly missive from the facsimile machine or Royal Mail service any day!
posted by rory at 8:43 AM on November 19, 2001

Interstng link, scrbc. Reminds me that back when I used to write an actual diary - y'know, one of those things on paper, written by hand, where the archives wouldn't disappear at the push of a 'Post & Publish' button - I always used tho, thru, w for 'with', and a few other time-saving devices. But of course, that was informal, private writing, like... um... email.
posted by rory at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2001

Maybe I'm just getting a bit long in the tooth myself, but I still can't stand poorly written email. I don't care if it's trendy, or the sign of a new vanguard, or what have you; to me it still looks like the scrawlings of the uneducated and ignorant. Maybe I'm crotchety or intolrerant, but I'm more likely to delete unread an email which reveals itself to be a muddle of 'u's, 'r's, and other hard-to-parse contrivances, than to try to work my way through it.

If you have something worth saying, say it well. Otherwise, don't say it at all.
posted by jammer at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2001

People tend to use the word itself to describe the most common occurence of a thing, then add adjectives to qualify less common uses. Witness the transformation of the mobile communications device from "cellular phone" to "cellphone" and now mostly just "phone", with the wired version gaining qualifiers - "regular phone" or in more technical circles "landline".

Electronic mail is too clunky a term when it's the kind of mail most of us use most of the time. It has already lost the "lectronic" and it seems to me inevitable that it will also lose the "e". But I doubt "snailmail" will necessarily take over from "mail" as a term describing the sort of mail involving stamps and envelopes; it's usually obvious based on context which sense is intended.

I think the muddled-up crypto-language the author describes can be explained by the fact that most people don't know how to type and most people don't read for pleasure. What's the point of writing well-formed sentences if neither you nor your reader find them more pleasant than a compact, mangled string of consonants and digits?

Language, to me, is a communication medium; in the form the author describes, it is a data-transfer protocol. One doesn't write to one's recipient; one encodes as symbols the sounds that would come out of one's mouth. Instead of reading this message, the recipient plays it back through their vocal chords. By listening to the noises produced, the recipient can puzzle out what it was the transmitter intended to say.

posted by Mars Saxman at 10:07 AM on November 19, 2001

I guess it's valid and excusable in a lot situations, like casual conversation, but in general I despise "internet shorthand." A good portion of the business-related emails I get are indecipherable. Notes from people who pay me money sometimes need to be asked for clarification on what something says or means. I would never think of composing a business email without proper grammar, spelling, punctuation and caps. It just seems so unprofessional and negatively reflective of myself.

Mars makes a good point - a lot of poorly composed messages come from people who can't type. Or are impatient, or both. A lot of the ones I get do come from those who are still hunting and pecking. Perhaps I take it for granted that since I can type at the speed of light, I can bang out a gramatically correct sentence in the same time it takes one of my friends to send off "hey where r u going 2night."
posted by tomorama at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2001

One interesting aspect of the shorthand is that it changes depending on what language you're writing in. For example, I communicate with my friends on messenger in Spanish, and we've come up with our own shorthand, like "dp" for despues (later), "tb" for tambien (also), "xq" for por que (why), etc.

On another subject, I feel a language is essentially a fluid creature, adapting incessantly to the needs of its users. Pretending that its state at a certain point in time is somehow "superior" or "correct" is both pointless and ultimately damaging to the health of the language.
posted by signal at 10:34 AM on November 19, 2001

Mars, that's a fascinating point. I hadn't thought of the difference between language as a communication mediuam and language as a data transfer protocol. Hmm. Interesting. Thank you.
posted by jammer at 10:59 AM on November 19, 2001

I think shorthand is also a function of the use of communication. I tend to the verbose, personally, but I am usually focused on initiating or responding to a specific individual with informational intent. I watch my 15-year-old daughter, though (to date myself) on AIM or ICQ and realize that she writes in order to maintain her network of bonds, not necessarily to convey information. How very e-tribal of her. Given the incredible proliferation of windows and contacts going at all times, shorthand is the only practical way to make even minimal response in most cases. Over time, this has begun to leak into her mail, and now the two are virtually indistinguishable.
posted by umberto at 11:43 AM on November 19, 2001

I'll go further and suggest that your average kid's use of ICQ shorthand isn't primarily practical; it's most importantly a signal that they belong to the culture of Kid, which is a close relative of the (ever morphing) culture of Cool.

Kids are tribal indeed -- I read about a fascinating study which demonstrated that old songs and nursery rhymes aren't passed from parent to child -- they are circulated from older kids to younger ones and this circulation bypasses and even excludes adults. (Sorry I don't have a link to it).

On reflection, therefore, I think that much of the fractured spelling and hyper-abbreviated nature of this kind of writing work to reinforce the notion that the user is part of the "new" culture, and not a member of the stuffy old thing. With kids that's an ordinary part of being-a-kid. With your 32-year-old colleague, it's trying desperately to be the kid s/he no longer is.
posted by BT at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2001

When a friend was a teaching assistant in journalism at a major university, she graded down for misspelt words; one student protested: he "would have a secretary for that crap," when he graduated and went into broadcasting.
posted by Carol Anne at 12:27 PM on November 19, 2001

If we are forced to speak of "acoustic guitars" then we will surely eventually speak also of "physical mail."
posted by kindall at 12:41 PM on November 19, 2001

Oh wow... I think I'm going to start calling it "acoustic mail".
posted by moss at 1:05 PM on November 19, 2001

is this the right place for one of my favorite things on the web?

messaging version of romeo + juliet. brilliant, IMO, and textually accurate. (flash)
posted by rebeccablood at 1:21 PM on November 19, 2001

Brilliant, moss. I ran to register "" and discovered it was already taken...
posted by kindall at 4:25 PM on November 19, 2001

is this the right place for one of my favorite things on the web?

what do you think this is, a community blog or something?

(that link is beautiful)
posted by mattpfeff at 4:29 PM on November 19, 2001

Well, as someone who once spent a good deal of time writing lengthy letters to people back in the pre-computer days, e-mails composed of multiple paragraphs are fairly standard practice for me. Aside from "LOL" or the multifarious collection of smiley faces, even my IMs are plagued by complete sentences. I correspond with a good deal of people (and generally e-mail volleys have a tendency to end if it doesn't involve two people ping-ponging several paragraphs to each other), but I've never heard anyone refer to e-mail as mail. Until post offices and mailboxes are extirpated from the face of the earth and the dreaded notion of receiving bills migrates completely onto an electronic medium, I don't see our notion of "mail" being modified anytime soon.
posted by ed at 4:55 PM on November 19, 2001

I think the difference here isn't between old and young generations, it's between conversations and letters. Basically, from what I can remember, there's conversations, in which people use bad grammer, rapid conversation shifts, and all sorts of bad stuff. Like the word, ain't, for example. Then there is letters, where people have time to think, and use proper grammer and such.

Aim is like a phone conversation, and email is like a letter. You should use proper grammer and such in an email or letter, but it's more trouble than it's worth in aim or a conversation. Kind of like comparing apples and oranges, really.

And I use email, because it is email, not an actual letter.
posted by stoneegg21 at 5:49 PM on November 19, 2001

at this point it is easier for me to electronically write a note that is grammatical and structured well and comprehensive than it is to do the same thing on a piece of paper.

until I sat down to do it on my honeymoon this summer, I had forgotten what a skill it is to sit down and construct a sensible, semi-structured (and ending with the piece of paper) letter by hand.

I am so used to editing and re-editing, letting my notes grow as long as they will, pasting paragraphs in different places as the structure of the note changes.....

writing a good letter by hand is harder for me now, and it takes a number of different skills than email does....
posted by rebeccablood at 7:03 PM on November 19, 2001

From a Scientific American book review I just ran across:

"Crystal, the Welsh author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language who is known to many in the U.S. through his comments on National Public Radio, analyzes the discourse of Web pages, e-mail, chatgroups and virtual-reality games. At first glance, much of this text certainly looks like a primer on linguistic irresponsibility: the shedding of capital letters; the minimalist punctuation; the perverse spellings and goofy abbreviations like RUOK ("are you okay?"); the smileys, such as :-), representing humor; the coining of terms at a rate that has no parallel in contemporary language.

For Crystal, though, these phenomena are not portents of linguistic doom but examples of a set of language tactics developed for a new medium he calls computer-mediated communication. The innovative, sometimes screwball varieties of English expressed in computer-mediated channels, he says, have evolved as users have adapted their language creatively to meet changing circumstances."

Maybe. But I still like my shift key.
posted by pracowity at 2:43 AM on November 20, 2001

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