R u OK w Hillary’s emails?

The release of emails to and from Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state has provided much interest and entertainment. One thing that caught my eye immediately was the use of abbreviated forms such as thx, pls, w, and especially u. So I wrote an article for The Week about it (I didn’t give it the title, though):

Hillary Clinton, and the surprising history of elder statesmen writing like tweens


3 responses to “R u OK w Hillary’s emails?

  1. Dear Mr. Harbeck:

    Yes, now that you explained it, I’m OK with the abbreviated words. I commend you for finding and exposing the historical precedents for shortening words in communications. I already knew of that practice in relation to telegraph messages, but had not thought about its deep historical roots in written correspondence.

    What I am not OK with is your use of the plural “emails”. Email is a mass noun, just as “mail” is. One does not send or receive “mails”, one sends and receives “mail”. The singular of “email” is “email message”.

    (As you can tell, I am one of those who are not swayed by any number of ghits. Millions of people can be inaccurate in their usage, as you undoubtedly have noticed in your peripatetic explorations of the English language.) It seems to me that although “emails” seems to be acceptable colloquial English, IMO it has no place in serious, formal communications or written documents. Do you consider your Sesquiotica email messages to be formal, colloquial, or somewhere in between? I find the content to be most literate and punctiliously correct in grammar, though often “casual” in tone.

    I am OK with Hillary’s usage of “shorthand” in her email, though I’m not so sure how I feel about her choice of using commercial email hosting for official State Department business; it seems (in the clear light of hindsight) like a not-so-bright decision. But I have not read any of her individual email messages, except in the excerpts you presented. (I avoid television as well as newspapers, so I am not inundated with lurid details of a plethora of captious “scandals” seemingly manufactured by enemies of some public figure.)

    Anyway, I suspect that if any of us had had our entire corpus of email subjected to the kind of scrutiny that Ms. Clinton has endured lately, we would be sorely embarrassed by what they may find in some of our email messages.

    Brian Hitchcock
    Technical Writer
    Torrance, CA

    • Dear Mr. Hitchcock:

      You don’t get to make the rules. “Email” is established usage for what is less concisely said “email message”; “email” is but one of many words that can be either a mass noun or a count noun, with a corresponding difference in signification. Many people far more expert and authoritative than you, including the lexicographers at Oxford and Merriam-Wesbter, agree on this (feel free to check http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/email , http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/email, and, if you have access, the Oxford English Dictionary entry; make sure to read the entries all the way through). Your insistence on “email message” is an attempt to enforce an arbitrary and unnecessarily wordy imposition. I recommend you spend your time more productively.

  2. I think it’s also important to point out that there aren’t really any absolute mass or count nouns in English. Different grammatical devices exist to convey a mass or count interpretation. For example, pluralization gives a count interpretation, otherwise it’s mass:

    “There were cakes everywhere at the party” (count interpretation)
    “There was cake everywhere at the party” (mass interpretation)

    Along the same lines:

    “There were a lot of e-mails” (count)
    “There was a lot of e-mail” (mass)

    The same thing would, in principle, apply to “mail”, and I think that “there were a lot of mails” is grammatical. It’s pragmatically weird though because we have other, more specific, nouns that are used instead: letters, postcards, parcels, boxes, deliveries, etc. When you have a mix of these things, then a mass noun “mail” is perfectly appropriate.

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