A Momentous – and Dubious – AP Style Change

The news first broke on March 18 in a tweet on the AP Stylebook Twitter feed:

With this less-than-140-character announcement, the normally sound Associated Press Stylebook rocked the world of style and usage by sanctioning the hyphenless spelling of “email” in its online edition and made it further official in May with the inclusion of it in the new 2011 edition of its spiral-bound book.

While many PR pros, journalists and writers may scratch their heads over what the big deal is about the ratification of this spelling – especially considering this has been the most common spelling for some time and that British English speakers have long used this spelling — this update is in fact a disappointing concession to people’s aversion to using hyphens and the speed-is-everything mindset that characterizes today’s writing. More to the point, this spelling is a travesty, and for this reason, I would like to take a moment to explain why the hyphen is so important in the spelling “e-mail” and help careful writers understand this distinction and make the best decision about this spelling going forward in the new era of AP-style-approved “email.”

What’s the Big Deal?
So don’t other hyphenated words merge into one? Well, yes, compound nouns do tend to go from separate to joined, often with a hyphen stage. “On-line,” for example, became “online.” “Per cent” (in American English) evolved into “percent.” And “today,” “tonight” and “tomorrow” started out as “to-day,” “to-night” and “to-morrow.”

The issue with “e-mail,” though, is that it’s not a simple compound noun. It’s an initial-letter-based abbreviation, and no initial-letter-based abbreviation in the English language has ever morphed into a solid word. A few are split; the rest are hyphenated: “b-movie,” “c-section,” “D-Day,” “F layer,” “g-string,” “t-shirt,” “x-ray” and “Z particle.”

The “e” isn’t simply a syllable in “e-mail” – it’s the letter “e.” Nobody goes to see a “bmovie,” has a “csection” or wears a “tshirt,” and you will find no example parallel to “email.” Would “senior manager,” for example, ever be abbreviated as “srmanager” rather than “sr. manager”? Or would “lieutenant colonel” ever be written as “ltcol” instead of “lt. col.”? Or would “department store” ever be listed as “deptstore” over “dept. store”? Of course not. The initial or abbreviation has to be separated from the rest of the word to make clear that it’s not a letter in the word but that it’s an initial or abbreviation for another word. Same principle with the “e” in “e-mail.”

What’s more, “email” doesn’t even look right because it divorces the “e” so that the first syllable begs to be pronounced as a schwa (“uh-mail”) instead of an accented “e.” Separating the letter clarifies that the letter is indeed a letter and that the one-letter syllable is accented. “Eeeeeee”!

A Weak Explanation
The AP’s explanation behind this style update, which was posted on the AP Stylebook website in response to a question, illustrates the illogic and inconsistency of this change:

Q. Agree that email should have no hyphen, but curious to know why e-business, e-commerce should. Reasons?– from New York City on Tue, Apr 12, 2011
A. AP’s acceptance of email reflects the reality of usage. Other e- terms, which aren’t as widely used in daily discourse, are clearer with the hyphenated spellings. Thus AP is sticking with e-business, e-commerce and others that abbreviate electronic.

The fact that other “e-” words continue to be hyphenated precisely illustrates the point made above about initial-letter-based abbreviations. But how the AP can make an exception for “email” because that’s the “reality of usage” makes no sense. Although popular usage does play a part in influencing spelling and style, spelling and style are ultimately determined by what the language community of dictionary makers, academics, professional writers, and newspaper, magazine, and website editors deem to be correct.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Now that the “email” spelling has been legitimized by one of the major style guides for the English language and the style guide that serves as the standard for PR and journalism, PR pros as well as business communicators should feel free to use it. (Thankfully, though, two other style-guide stalwarts, The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern American Usage continue to use “e-mail.”) However, PR pros would do well to understand the issue involved with the “email” spelling, and writers who want to demonstrate a special appreciation for the nuances of English should feel free to use the “e-mail” spelling.

What do you think? Is the AP’s sanctioning of “email” a tempest in a teapot, or does this change raise a legitimate spelling issue? I look forward to your thoughts.