To Hyphenate or Not

A recent mistake I made, coupled with some things I’ve read over the past few weeks has led me to use this space for a suggestion for the future.

Several days ago someone sent me an e-mail asking me to send him something.  He asked me to send it by “email” (note spelling), but I read it as “mail.”  I missed the little “e.”  I looked around for his address, couldn’t find it, then stupidly e-mailed him to send me his snail-mail address.  He wrote back giving me his e-mail address and I realized what I had done.

The mistake I made was not recognizing the “e” in front of “mail,” though I suspect others have made the same mistake.  That damn little “e” gets lost way too easily.  What’s worse is using both the hyphenated and non-hyphenated forms.  Only a few minutes before I started typing this blog, I read a news story in which the author used both versions (email and e-mail) in the same story.  Bad form.  We should pick one style and stick with it.  I suggest we use the hyphenated form, for the basic reason that “e-mail” is distinct and easy to recognize and it has its own meaning and definition.  The form “email” is a degeneration on “mail,” and is neither “mail” nor “e-mail.”  Throwing an “e” in front of a word doesn’t necessarily make it an electronic form of something.

But another reason I suggest we use the hyphenated form has to do with some other terms that have appeared recently.  The problem is becoming compounded by the presence of various types of electronic gadgets which are being given names beginning with “e.”  Now we have ereaders and ebooks and etablets, and God only knows what we’ll have in the future.  I don’t mind “ebook” too much, but ereader is hard to grasp with all those vowels converging at the front of the word.  For this reason I suggest the following:  “e-reader,”  “e-book,” and, if necessary, “e-tablet.”  To be consistent, we should also use “e-mail,” and that’s the form I intend to use from now on.  Bryan A. Garner in his book, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, recommends the hyphenated version, but he admits the non-hyphenated form may predominate eventually.  Generally, hyphens have a way of disappearing, unless a good reason exists for them to be retained.

Of course I’m not deluding myself that I have much clout in the world of grammar and syntax and punctuation and style, so the real problem is getting others to go along.  Tell all your friends and neighbors (and your e-friends and e-neighbors–my God, where will it all e-end?).  The ultimate is to ge the Chicago Manual of Style to go along and insist that the hyphen be retained.  That’s going to take some time.  I’ll work on that.

(Note: some of these words, like e-reader, are so new the spell checker on WordPress doesn’t recognize them.)

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