More than once during my tenure at ClickZ, I was asked to review style preferences on digital terms, most recently e-mail, Web, Internet, and home page.
These terms are new enough that their spellings are in flux. Should e-mail have a hyphen? If you have more than one e-mail, do you have e-mails? Should we cap Web and Internet? What about related terms, like Webmaster and Web page? And is home page one word or two? (If you’re paying attention, you can figure out most of my style decisions from this paragraph.)
The key here is that, for now at least, these terms have more than one acceptable spelling. One hopes (at least I do) that these terms will settle down into one spelling, making writers’ and editors’ lives easier. Maybe it’ll even happen in my lifetime. But I’m not holding my breath; dictionaries still list both catalog and catalogue.
So how does one go about deciding on a specific spelling? Do you follow the dictionary? And which dictionary is that anyway? Dictionaries don’t always agree on things, even on a preferred spelling or if one spelling is truly preferred over another (more on dictionaries and how they work another time). What does your style guide or usage manual say? How about following what others in your industry do? Or following mainstream media, if that’s more appropriate? Any of these resources might be the way to go (you do have these resources, right? If not, see my post on writers’ resources.) ClickZ had a set style based on the Chicago Manual of Style and The American Heritage Dictionary. But neither of these were industry-specific. There are many marketing organizations and they don’t necessarily agree on style — if they even notice it.
What’s a style maven to do?
In the end, I decided to get the 50,000 feet view and make a decision based on that. I approached all the terms the same way, so let me outline just one: e-mail. Important to note: when I look at whether e-mail was used as a mass noun (“I receive so much e-mail!”) or a countable noun (“I receive so many e-mails!”), I mostly ignored the hyphen question.
I started with the dictionaries. Our house dictionary (the one we defer to most often) was The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, and I weighted its opinion more. Here’s what I found:
American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2000): e-mail, e-mail (pl)
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003): e-mail, e-mail (pl)
Cambridge Dictionary of American English (2007): e-mail, e-mail (pl.)
Oxford American Dictionary (2005): email, emails
Webopedia: e-mail, also email; e-mail (pl)
Marketing Terms.com: email or e-mail; email (pl)
Free Online Dictionary of Computing: e-mail
Says the FODC, “The form ’email’ is also common, but is less suggestive of the correct pronunciation and derivation than ‘e-mail’. The word is used as a noun for the concept (‘Isn’t e-mail great?’, ‘Are you on e-mail?’), a collection of (unread) messages (‘I spent all night reading my e-mail’), and as a verb meaning ‘to send (something in) an e-mail message’ (‘I’ll e-mail you (my report)’). The use of ‘an e-mail’ as a count noun for an e-mail message, and plural ‘e-mails’, is now (2000) also well established despite the fact that ‘mail’ is definitely a mass noun.
Style Guides and Usage Manuals
Next, I checked various style guides and usage manuals. Again, I gave preference to our house style guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. But no one guide aligns perfectly with every publication, so I felt the need to check out some others:
Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed., 2003): e-mail, e-mails
From CMS’s FAQ page: “A. ‘E-mail’ and ‘mail’ aren’t exactly parallel in usage. We don’t say ‘I received six mail today.’ We say ‘letters’ or ‘pieces of mail.’ Since ‘e-mail messages’ is a few syllables longer than we generally tolerate in computerspeak, the coinage of ‘e-mails’ seems to perform a useful function. As for language going downhill, we prefer to believe that it is constantly evolving to meet our needs. (Otherwise, we would have to be grumpy all the time.)”
Wired Magazine: email, emails
Garner’s Modern American Usage (2nd ed., 2003): e-mail, e-mails
Associated Press Stylebook (2009): e-mail, e-mails
From AP’s “Ask the Editor” section: “A. We’re holding the line on those spellings. E-mail is the first choice of Webster’s [AP’s house dictionary] and preferred by many newspapers. E-mail is consistent with other hyphenated, electronic age terms such as e-book, e-commerce, e-shopping and e-business.”
So far, e-mail was in the lead, preferred not just by our house style guide and dictionary, but also by other word authorities — all of which have language professionals behind them. What about industry professionals? What do those who may not give a dash for proper language, those whose goal is to sell something to someone, think? Rarely did I come across an organization that preached one form over another (the Email Experience Council being the notable exception; it’s quite vocal about its style and I took it under strong advisement). I surfed around these organizations’ sites to see what they practiced. Unfortunately, these organizations weren’t always consistent. (Hey, if any of you professional organizations out there would like someone to make your site and your copy consistent, you know where to find me.) Here’s what I found:
|Organization||E-mail vs. email||Mass vs. Countable|
|Email Experience Council||emails|
|Direct Marketing Association||inconsistent, but email more popular||emails|
|American Association of Advertising Agencies||inconsistent, but e-mail more popular||inconsistent, but e-mail used more as a mass noun|
|Association of National Advertisers||inconsistent, but email more popular||inconsistent, but e-mail used more as a mass noun|
|Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization||inconsistent, but e-mail more popular||inconsistent, but emails more popular|
|Word Of Mouth Marketing Association||inconsistent, but email more popular||inconsistent, but emails more popular|
|Interactive Advertising Bureau||inconsistent, but email more popular||inconsistent, but e-mail used more as a mass noun|
While the professional organizations were inconsistent (and often had unedited copy), email won over e-mail and email as a countable noun took the lead. Still, they were inconsistent (except the EEC) and copy didn’t appear to be edited. Whenever I saw e-mail, was that an intentional decision? Did anyone even notice?
Search Engine Results
Finally, I checked search engine results. I checked news results (mostly edited content), general results (mostly unedited content), and blog results (again, mostly unedited content). I admit, I gave more weight to edited content, as someone gave some thought to spelling and style. I also had to compare emails against e-mails, as I couldn’t think of how to tell when email or e-mail was used in the plural other than to read everything, and that just didn’t seem practical.
|Term||Google News||BlogPulse||Google Blog Search|
|1.6 billion||5.6 million||557,709||22.5 million|
|2.7 billion||2.5 million||1.3 million||239.1 million|
|e-mails||97.4 million||213,000||251,381||9.6 million|
I found the results interesting. In unedited copy, email was the hands-down winner, though e-mails trumped emails in the plural department. In edited news copy, e-mail and emails were more common. Even editors are inconsistent, I guess.
In the end, I went with e-mail and e-mails. More authorities and edited copy preferred them (sorry, EEC). I suspect, however, that one of these days language mavens will have to capitulate to language speakers who don’t give a darn about “proper spelling” and allow email and emails to reign.
As I said earlier, I used much the same method for the other terms. I went with Web and capitalizing it in all its varied forms; Internet; and home page for much the same reasons I went with e-mail and e-mails. My choices may not work for you. Heck, they may not work for ClickZ’s new style maven. They are a matter of style (at least for now), and style can be subjective. But if you have to choose one form over another, this system may be the way to decide on your style. Or you could just follow your style manual. Or your dictionary. Or your…. You get the idea.
If you’d like more information on why I chose the spellings I did with the other terms or on my method in general, drop me a line or leave a comment below.