E-mail: Let's Keep the Hyphen

May 11th, 2010

I’m distraught that the word “e-mail” is losing its hyphen. The “email” form appears to be increasing in popularity. Even the web design company (actually a “full-service interactive agency”) I work for consistently spells it without the hyphen on sites we create (although I’m not sure that we’ve bothered to adopt an official policy on the matter).

Even renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth, whom I greatly respect, favors the sans-hyphen form. However, he’s a computer scientist, not a linguist, and I take issue with his reasoning. He claims, rightly, that “newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used.” He cites the words “nonzero” and “software” as examples of words that have lost their hyphens. But the word “e-mail” differs in several ways. For example, while “nonzero” and “software” are pronounced roughly the same way with or without a hyphen, the standard pronunciation of “e-mail” is not apparent from the non-hyphenated spelling, in which the “e” would naturally take on the schwa sound.

Donald Knuth

More compellingly, the hyphen in “e-mail” connects a single letter to an entire word. Consider similar constructs, like “I-beam” or “X-ray”; would they be written without they hyphen? Would they look natural and be easy to pronounce? What about “A-bomb,” “B-ball,” “C-section,” “D-Day,” “f-stop,” “G-Spot,” “S-curve,” “T-square,” and “U-turn”? Has any English-language word of this form ever lost its hyphen?



lionmage says…
November 29th, 2010

You raise a good point regarding other hyphenated words where a single letter is offset by a hyphen.

Nobody seems to ever give Knuth grief for his mis-use of the term “nonce word.” A nonce word is a specific type of neologism which is only ever used once, usually in a literary or poetic context.

I should point out that Wired magazine originally spelled the word email, and then switched to e-mail when they revised their style guide because they decided they were becoming a more respected print publication. Or something along those lines…

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