I go along with Merriam-Webster’s in preferring the hyphenated version, but this isn’t about preference, it’s about priority. I would have assumed that the hyphen came first and then (as happens in the course of events, cf. “base-ball”) people began writing it as one word. Not so, according to the investigation undertaken by Avva, who’s irritated by the whole question but can’t resist looking into it, in the same way (he says) that you can’t help probing the toothache with your tongue. He has investigated the Google Groups Usenet archives and found that from the very early ’80s, when there was barely such a thing, both forms were in use, and both grew in popularity throughout the decade, so that the evolutionary hypothesis fails. His suggestion is that CompuServe’s 1979 introduction of what they called EMAIL (so called, he wonders, because program names couldn’t contain a hyphen?) established that form in the awareness of computer users, so that it was available alongside the more natural “e-mail” as both began to supplant the term “mail” (which was originally used for the electronic variety as well). He is continuing his researches and welcomes any corrections and commentaries; I too welcome comments from anyone knowledgeable about the history of usage in those dark ages of the internet.


  1. I’ll go with e-mail because it seems to look like it should be pronounced the way I pronounce the word — and email does not, not really. Maybe eMail? But I don’t really like the idea of putting caps inside a word unless the initial letter is capitalized. BTW, I haven’t seen you in the apostrophe wars over at Calpundit’s site… Is the hyphen a punctuation or diacritical mark?

  2. “Where wizards stay up late” is the (excellent) standard history of the origins of the Internet, including the story of the origin of email, and how the “@” got into addresses.
    CompuServe was originally PDP-10s I think (and thus not Unix – presumably they ran TOPS-10 or 20); which is before my time.
    Unix had a program “mail” used between users on a time-sharing machine (which they all were way back when) which was later extended to handle Arpanetting.
    From first exposure the mid-90’s I was using “email” and “mail” in freeish variation in English, as I still do. (I use “courriel” in French.)

  3. I’m sad about ‘@’ having turned into an abbreviation for “at.” I long used it to mean “circa,” in the sense of “approximately, round about, more or less,” and only recently learned that everyone nowadays takes it to mean “at,” So I’d write “I’ll be there @ 4:00,” meaning, “don’t be surprised if I show up at 3:45 or 4:15,” but people were understanding it to mean “I’ll be there at 4:00 precisely.”
    Why, O why, would anyone want an abbreviation for a word as short as “at”? My guess is that it comes of pronouncing ‘@’ as “at” when saying e-mail addresses aloud.

  4. your analogy with “base-ball” is precisely why i don’t like “e-mail”. in both cases, the hyphen seems to be used for joining words people already understood in the interest of allowing people to understand the new hyphenated word. but once the hyphenated word comes into common use, we don’t need the hyphen anymore. email is in common use now. we no longer need the analogy to mail, which means we don’t need the hyphen anymore. the analogy to mail has been weak all along, and i think we should pitch it along with the hyphen and let “email” be its own word.

  5. Dale — I know a Pogo cartoon (pre-e-mail) in which one character is buying some produce, and the grocer (an untrustworthy stork) weighs the veggies and says, “that’s 2 1/2 lbs. @ 35¢” or some such — this was my first exposure to the symbol in question and I believe it was meant to be vocalized as “at”. I have seen people use it to mean “circa” but always assumed that they were making a mistake.

  6. Mitch Mills says:

    I used to use “@” to mean “around” too, because that’s what it looked like: the letter “a” with a circle around it. But I was just trying to be clever, and never knew anyone else who used it that way. I eventually stopped because everyone took it (not surprisingly) to mean “at”, not “around”.
    I think my earliest memories of seeing this symbol in use (What’s it called, anyway? Is there a name other than “The ‘at’ sign”?) long predate any contact I had with e-mail. Basically it means “at the price of”. For example, “9 widgets @ $1.10 = $9.90” and I would say it “nine widgets AT one-ten (each) equals nine-ninety”.

  7. Mitch Mills says:

    Okay, I did a bit of googling and turned up this:
    which says that sometimes “@” is referred to as “amphora”. Has anyone ever heard this usage?
    It also has some interesting history on why it was chosen for e-mail names, and brings up the sensible point that commercial use is why this sign ended up on typewriter keyboards in the first place.
    Also, this site has some info on what the sign is called in other languages:
    It links to a very extensive compilation of the @ sign in many languages:

  8. Mitch: Your BBC page does not say that the sign is or has ever been called “amphora”; it says in a 1536 letter (the first attested use) it represents an amphora, which is very different. During the Renaissance “the symbol filtered up the trade routes to northern Europe where accountants began using it as shorthand for ‘at the price of’,” so it has always meant ‘at’ and not ‘around.’ Its only name in English seems to be “commercial at,” which is (as they say) hardly inspiring. At any rate, that multilingual list is great; here‘s the direct link.
    Scott: “E-mail” may eventually lose its hyphen, but I dislike the thought. To me (and I realize this is not a general problem) when written as one word it looks like the French word for ‘enamel’ (as in emailfinitech, the website of “a manufacturing enterprise specialized in the application of enamel on cast iron, aluminum, and steel”); furthermore, it’s not a standard combined-word formulation (which would be something like “elecmail”) and thus isn’t parallel to forms like “baseball.” As a matter of fact, a much closer parallel is the term “b-ball” for “basketball,” and you don’t see that written as one word, do you?

  9. I recently discovered that the lack of any rule governing “disk” or “disc” could be a problem. For instance, the Mac OS X help documents use both interchangably, so failing to take this into account could mean that you fail to find certain help documents when doing a search.

  10. I’m amazed to learn of “emailfinitech”. Although I’ve finally succumbed to using “email”, for a long time I held out precisely because a company called “Email” was once Australia’s largest manufacturer of whitegoods i.e enamel-covered refrigerators, washing machines, and cooking ranges.
    On a vaguely-related note, is anyone as annoyed as I am by people who use “data base”, “spread sheet”, and (now) “web log”?

  11. I prefer “email” on the grounds that it’s phonologically a single word, and a hyphen suggests otherwise (to me, at least).
    (Actually, I used to use “e-mail” until I read this article justifying Wired‘s switch from email to e-mail in 2000 – it irritated me so much that I dropped the hyphen out of spite. I don’t expect anyone else to find this a compelling argument, though.)

  12. Just as long as you don’t call it courriel 🙂

  13. I would write e-mail. But I often just say mail and letter. So after I write an e-mail, if for some reason someone is inquiring thereof, I often say, “I sent a letter to (or about) so-and-so (or such-and-such)”
    Also, my “other” language is German and in German “Email” means “enamel”. For some reason that bugs me. I am a young’un, and I remember knowing “e-mail” before “Email” and asking my father about that, and figuring out I wouldn’t get an e-mail pin if I purchased tickets early or something.

  14. Wow, I’m glad somebody else here had the notion that ‘@’ was an abbreviation for “circa,” because a cursory web search turns up absolutely nothing to make me think it was ever used that way. I wonder how it got lodged in my brain? I was as sure of it as I am that ‘$’ means “dollars.” I wonder how many other “facts” like this are bobbing about in my brain? Scary.

  15. I don’t think Avva’s data necessarily rule out the evolutionary hypothesis. There was, over the period, not simply growing internet usage but internet usage increasing at a growing rate. It’s possible that new users start with the hyphenated form and after a while abbreviate it to the non-hyphenated form, but the usage of the hyphenated form increases (as does the usage of the non-hyphenated form) because there are more new users at any given time than there are converting users.

  16. Interesting piece on this topic by computer guru Don Knuth: Knuth versus Email

  17. On second thought, “comment” would be a better description.

  18. Mitch Mills says:

    Oops. Indeed the BBC page doesn’t say that the sign is called “amphora”.
    But in the second page I linked to (http://www-hsc.usc.edu/~cypert/dick/lowly@.html), it does refer to it as the “amphora symbol”, although it’s not really clear whether they’re actually claiming that it goes by that name. Anyway I should be more careful.
    Oh and (obviously) I didn’t “link” to that page, I just pasted in its URL, because I haven’t yet gotten around to figuring out how to put links into comments. I must be a luddite (with apologies to S.L Viehl).

  19. I agree that email is a non-standard spelling given the intention is to pronounce it “eemail” or “imail”. It’s a problem with these nasty one letter acronyms “e” & “i” (standing for electronic and information) which are being prepended to all sorts of common words to give them a hi-tech flavour.
    Personally, I favour dropping the “e” altogether and simply calling it “mail” again and where necessary qualifying the old-fashioned “snail” variety.

  20. I prefer the e-mail, because that sounds like how I pronounce it. (More emphasis on the ‘e’)
    And I would never refer to e-mail as just ‘mail’ or ‘letters’ because I actually write letters using pen and paper, and the difference between writing letters and typing e-mail is quite substantial.
    Given the choice, I’d prefer to recieve a letter in the mail than an e-mail. But since I don’t get that many letters, e-mail is good too.

  21. If there’s anyone who should be allowed decide the question, it’s Donald Knuth. http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html

  22. Pat already linked to that Knuth rant, which is worth no more than anyone else’s expression of personal preference. This is not a reasoned argument: “Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now!” That’s one of the standard arguments for all sorts of crackpot Reformd Speling proposals. Think of how many keystrokes you will save if you stop writing altogether! Bah.

  23. wow. this is a lengthy discussion, and i’m going to add to it lengthily. tim managed to say what i tried to say in much fewer words. i wasn’t aware of the french meaning of “email”, but that doesn’t strike me as a good reason to keep the hyphen. there’s no shortage of english words that mean something different in other languages, but generally people can easily figure out the meaning based on the context of the surrounding language, right? i wouldn’t much mind of the french wanted to call email “enamel”.
    “b-ball” is different, i think, because it has two consonant sounds together. i’m no linguistics expert, but i think that word requires a larger pause where the hyphen comes than “e-mail” does. i also don’t think it’s used often enough that it has meaning on its own. the “b” still means “basket”. i don’t think the “e” still means “electronic” for most people.
    as for “email” not being spelled how it sounds, i feel like we’ve already lost this campaign in english. too many english words aren’t spelled how they sound for this to be a useful criteria.
    of course, all of this is said with the knowledge that it “is worth no more than anyone else’s expression of personal preference” as language hat put it. in the end, whether or not the hyphen is lost will not be decided by logical arguments on the practical benefits of doing so or not (however depressing that might be to the keystroke conservation activists among us), but by use. google currently returns 22,400,000 results for “e-mail” and 270,000,000 results for “email”. i suspect at least half of those are not french enamel sites.

  24. as a counterpoint, i note that there is more “free e-mail” available than “free email”, according to google. on the other hand, i also note that google offers to correct the spelling of “e-mail” to “email”.

  25. One of my many little jobs is transcribing interviews and conference calls. I use a shortcut program that automatically replaces text shortcuts with the corresponding words. “e” becomes “exactly”; hence, “e-” immediately becomes “exactly-“. So I use email. And I have to agree that spelling has little to no influence on pronunseeashun.

  26. Oh, I’m quite willing to accept the verdict of The Masses, and if they drop the hyphen, so be it. But I reserve the right to maintain it in my own codgerly use, just as I imagine the early base-ballers kept using the hyphen long after the Sporting News had gone over to this newfangled “baseball.”
    I like lengthy discussions, by the way. Let each have his or her say and shame the devil!

  27. dungbeatle says:

    So sorry about elecronique mail[,] why not shanks ponie it[.] It might [mite] fade away[,] will save a whole industry tryin[g] to figure it for spam &[and] not ham[.] I[‘]m going to the aerodrome to fly in an aeroplane[.] The little I for i is so nice[,][ ]the math[ematics] term of savin[g] time versus cle[a]rly elucidatin[g] what i do not understand. I gues[s][,] I [i] wil[l] no long’r be labo[u]r th[e] reason why i rite this note[,] the dash is so hard to use[,] I have to use my little finger [&] and stretch it up and over[.] oh[!] well have fun[.]
    I’m so glad I do not work for pay. just sit on my park bench and —–.

  28. Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, “From the editors of Wired,” edited by Constance Hale, published in 1996, purports to be the styleguide for Wired and by implication to be at what was a the time the vanguard of the Internet revolution. As a styleguide it is almost useless, as one might expect from as capriciously and chaotically presented magazine like Wired. For example, there is no single alphebetized lexicon, like there is in the AP Stylebook, but separate lexicons for each chapter.
    Nevertheless, they had something useful to say about joining the ‘e’ and the ‘mail’, which went so far as to include an underlying style principle:

    From computer commands like whois and onscreen nouns like logon, we have evolved this comandment: When in doubt, close it up. Words spelled solid – like videogame or gameplay or homepage – may seem odd at first, but the now-common modem offers a perfect examploe of how quickly words move from the strange to the famikliar: Who even knows that the piece of hardware allowing computers to talk to each other was once called a modulater/demodulator?

    Our style for electronic mail is another example of this priciple. The magazine never observed the convention of abbreviating electronic with an uppercase E. Sure, it’s C-ration, H-bomb, V-chip – but E-mail didn’t look right, and certainly no one styled it that way on the Net. We originally used a hyphen to underscore the trace of the word electronic, but as email caught on, and as more and more people started spending more and more time on the Net, e-mail became more and more anachronistic. An email query obn how to style the word elicited these replies from Wired editors:

    “Who doesn’t type email in the heaqt of an electronic moment? But I still argue for hyphens when a single letter is prounounced as a syllable.” (Constance Hale).

    “The lexical tides are flowing against us. I suspect email will become standard.” (Gary Wolf)

    “It just seems like hyphens ultimately vanish; words are concatenated; it’s the way of the world. Electronic mail became e-mail became email.” (Louis Rossetto)

    The underlying style principle: When in doubt, close it up.
    This stuck with me, and despite Wired Style‘s arrogant tone and its general uselessness as a styleguide, I thought they had a point here. I’ve used “email” (except where otherwise dictated by house style) ever since. And I laughed and laughed (and sent the URL around to my cow-orkers in the copyediting bureau of the dotcom that employed me at the time) when Wired switched from “email” to “e-mail”.

  29. I believe Knuth’s ‘keystrokes’ remark may have been a joke….

  30. Fair enough, but in effect the entire paragraph is a combination of joke and expression of personal preference, which is fine if that’s how it’s taken. I just bridle at its being treated as some sort of authoritative statement.

  31. In my personal inbox, email is winning over e-mail, 774-432. FWIW.
    Why do I bother spam-proofing my email anymore? Most of my spam is via addresses which are already plastered all over the www.

  32. Maybe we should be calling it e.-mail.

  33. Knuth’s significant contributions to the fields of Mathematics and Computer Science (and overall intelligence) make him as good a candidate as any to be an “authority” on the usage of the word “email.”
    In any case, I think the humor of the whole thing was lost on you, so might as well forget it. 🙂

  34. Laephis, try not to be a jerk. The humor isn’t lost on me, but I don’t accept “contributions to the fields of Mathematics and Computer Science,” or even overall intelligence, as qualifications to prescribe usage. As an editor, I take my usage from dictionaries; as a user of the English language, from a combination of my own preference and the general usage of the English-speaking public. I have nothing whatever against Knuth, though I’d never heard of him, but his authority is in his field, not mine. You might work on being able to disagree with people without resorting to insulting them.

  35. I prefer email.
    Who even knows that the piece of hardware allowing computers to talk to each other was once called a modulater/demodulator?
    I do. As, I suspect, do many thousands of others.
    On a vaguely-related note, is anyone as annoyed as I am by people who use “data base”, “spread sheet”, and (now) “web log”?
    That’s difficult to answer without some indication of your level of annoyance. If you are very annoyed, then yes, so am I. (Although I saw the term “Web blog” used somewhere recently, which was even more annoying.)

  36. Michael Corral says:

    Looks like email has won out or will do so any case. But is it spelt “email” or “Email”?

  37. Michael Corral says:

    Looks like email has won out or will do so any case. But is it spelt “email” or “Email”?

  38. “You might work on being able to disagree with people without resorting to insulting them.”
    Whoa, I suggest you re-read my comment again. I wasn’t disagree, I was offering an explanation. And I don’t see any “insults” anywhere. My comment was a good-humored obsevation/comment. An example of an insult would have been: “Get a clue you stupid newbie.” I suggest *you* take things a little less personally.

  39. hmm… maybe i should do google “email” and “e-mail” every day and then chart the progress of displacement, if such a thing is taking place.

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