From ‘E-mail’ to ‘Email’: Dropping Hyphens Like They’re Hot

The New York Times nixed some punctuation in a style update this week, and it won't be the last.

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Anneclaire Le Royer

As of this week, reporters at the New York Times will no longer refer to e-mail. They will, instead, refer to email. The discarded hyphen comes with a batch of other updates to the Gray Lady’s stylebook—and in a time when hyphens have reason to be out of favor.

Just ask Angus Stevenson. The editor for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary helped chuck 16,000 hyphens when they updated their reference in recent years “to make sure the text reflected current usage and had a properly modern feel.” Though there’s no absolute count of how many hyphens people are throwing around out there, he says they are far less common than they were decades ago. And he suggests that passing on the dashing may reflect greater informality in the way we speak, “with the hyphen being seen as fussy and old-fashioned.”

English generally tends toward closing up compound words over time. Database used to be data baseCooperate used to be co-operateDouchebag used to be douche-bag. And, Merriam-Webster President John Morse says, these evolutions are happening quicker these days; digital technology means language spreads faster and changes faster, too. In the case of the New York Times, the people demanded that the hyphen go away, writes editor Patrick LaForge. The Associated Press made the switch to email in 2011, and LaForge says in an email that while the Times likes to “hang back, waiting for usage to settle down,” in this case “there seemed little point in varying.”

Stevenson ran the numbers in the Oxford English Corpus, a giant body of writing samples ranging from ­blogs to literary novels, and found that e-mail is actually more commonly used than email in America. But it’s trending in the other direction. That shift is in line with our familiarity with digital things—we don’t need the reminder that the word electronic used to be there—and the speedy way we communicate, dropping nonessential characters like they’re hot. “The migration to ebook, ecommerce and email is not unexpected,” says Morse. “This transition may come more readily in today’s technological environment.”

Skipping hyphens has become a popular branding trend, too: Consumers are used to seeing nothing where a line might have been in the past. Compare Coca-Cola and Easy-Bake Ovens to MacBooks, DreamWorks and PayPal (and NewsFeed). Those titles echo so-called “bicapitalization” used by computer programmers, who are involved with plenty of new companies these days, and it looks snappy, too.

Certainly newer hyphenated words, like pre-twerk, will keep replacing some of the collapsed, hyphen-less ones. Morse says that one shouldn’t assume hyphens are “going away.” For now at least, the slow and steady Times style gurus are holding onto dashes in other words like e-book and e-commerce—and promising to “discourage other newfangled e-terms.” But the more we use them, the more likely many of those little lines are bound to be erased.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.