You Spell Potato, I Spell Po-Ta-To

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Partner & CEO
Jun 30, 2010

Which is correct: "e-mail" or "email"? "Smartphone" or "smart phone"? Yahoo! recently offered its input on these matters and more with "The Yahoo! Style Guide," which hits shelves (and Kindle and app stores) next week.

Adam Ostrow of Mashable blogged about the guide earlier this week, announcing to thousands of digital die-hards that Yahoo! recommends "email" without the hyphen and "smartphone" without the space. The "email" news drew plenty of comments from Ostrow’s readers, some welcoming Yahoo!’s decision—and others endorsing the hyphen with odd intensity.

Defenders of "e-mail" generally offered three lines of reasoning for keeping the hyphen. Do they hold up? Should "e-mail" prevail? Let’s take a look.

Reason 1: "E-mail" is short for "electronic mail," so dropping the hyphen is "insane" (yes, I quote).

Even the most confident compound words started as tentative hyphenations. Then the two words got comfortable with each other, rendering needless the formality of a hyphen. Consider: Paperclip, fingernail, nutcase. Hyphenate these and you seem old-fashioned, clue-less, stuck-up.

"E-mail" really isn’t that different. We were quick to accept the "e" in place of "electronic." Dropping the hyphen is the logical next step.

Reason 2: "Email" is taken. It means "enamel." In German.

Seriously. This argument was made. Twice. Apparently this camp decries homonyms that exist across languages. Moving on.

Reason 3: Yahoo! doesn’t hold the same authority as established style-guide publishers like the Associated Press.

I might agree with this if Yahoo! were trying to supplant guides used for all media, but their style guide is, as they state on the cover, "for the Digital World." Traditional journalists won’t be abandoning the AP Stylebook any time soon; however, "The Yahoo!’s Style Guide" may eventually pave the way for changes to the Associated Press (which recently traded the clunky "Web site" for a much more svelte "website").

What’s more interesting about this argument is the very notion of a single language authority in the wild world of the web. Yes, guides are good and standards are necessary. But language has been changing for thousands of years, and all the rules in the world can’t stop it. "Doctor" used to mean teacher. "Silly" used to mean blessed. Prepositions used to be okay to end sentences with. And don’t even get us started on the word "fierce."

The point is, all the style guides, dictionaries and grammar geeks in the world can’t control language. It’s in the hands of its speakers, bloggers, texters and Tweeters. Language will change, and in the end it is what people use.

So back to the email debate, what are people using? According to Google Trends, people have been searching both "email" and "e-mail" for years. But as we’ve grown accustomed to "e" and "mail" hanging out together, searches for "e-mail" have declined while the popularity of "email" continues to grow.

If we go with what people are actually using then, "email" wins—though both are clearly acceptable. So yay for Yahoo! for listening to the real authorities here: Language users like you and me.

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