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Which way of writing the word: "Email" or "e-mail" is correct? Both variants seem to be in wide use. If both ones are okay, maybe there is a difference in contexts they have been used (one is more formal than the other)?

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14 Answers

up vote 76 down vote accepted

Both e-mail and email are in standard use at this point, although e-mail retains a vast majority of usage in edited, published writing according to my research using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

Here are the current results counts in COCA for various categories of English:

           e-mail  email
spoken     3535    711
fiction    789     285
magazine   5421    471
newspaper  6046    192
academic   3675    897
total      21696   2831
total(excl spoken)
           15931   1845

Obviously the “spoken” totals don’t represent any kind of actual usage but rather the policies of the organizations that transcribed the spoken data, so I also included a total that excludes the spoken examples. So, in (edited, published) fiction, magazines, newspapers, and academic writing we find that the traditional e-mail outnumbers incidences of email by more than 8.5 to 1. COCA includes data starting from 1990.

Now that we have established that e-mail retains the position of preferred usage by a very large margin, let’s look at trends over time. These numbers are in incidences per million words (rather than total incidences):

     e-mail  email
1990  0.15    0.00
1991  2.46    0.05
1992  1.67    0.00
1993  5.49    0.05
1994 10.40    0.24
1995 16.11    1.71
1996 22.41    2.14
1997 51.71    2.09
1998 38.15    1.62
1999 50.33    4.67
2000 85.98    6.37
2001 83.75    7.03
2002 95.29    3.38
2003 94.35    5.23
2004 79.68    4.51
2005 72.53    5.58
2006 72.38   10.09
2007 85.20   14.18
2008 68.26   26.56
2009 97.37   33.23
2010 87.93   26.66

This is a graphical representation showing the data over time:

graph comparing e-mail vs email between 1990 and 2010

The blue and red lines show the frequency of incidence for e-mail and email per million words. The orange line shows the ratio of incidence between e-mail and email over the same period. From these results, we see that e-mail was on a meteoric rise in the 1990s and by 2000 it has locked in at between 70 and 100 incidences per million words. Email, on the other hand, saw very little usage until 2005, when its use soared up to about 30 incidences per million words over the last few years.

What does all this tell us? We see a word whose spelling is in transition. It is not clear whether email will eventually reach and surpass e-mail. For the time being, e-mail has retained its position as the preferred usage by a factor of three to one over the past few years. The numbers can change very quickly and email may win out in five years, or it may stay a minority usage for a long time. Only time will tell. In the meantime, you are in good company if you use e-mail. That’s what I use.


Edit March 8, 2012:

I created a Google N-gram which compares instances of e-mail with email in the Google Books corpus between 1988 and 2008, and it does seem that e-mail hit a peak around 2004, and has been in decline since, though it remains significantly more common than email.

ngram comparing e-mail and email in English

Curiously, when you look in the country-specific corpora, you find that the gap is wider in American English and narrower in British English:

American English

ngram comparing e-mail and email in American English

British English

ngram comparing e-mail and email in British English

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Nice research! The result is somewhat surprising (to me), even if it pertains just to edited, published American English writing. I'd wager the distribution in online writing—and indeed in email writing—would greatly differ. It would also be interesting to know what it looks like for edited British English writing (given Knuth's notion quoted in my answer). –  Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 18:07
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@Jonik, sadly the British National Corpus, which is available for searching, only contains content up to 1993 and just one incidence of e-mail in the entire corpus. –  nohat Aug 25 '10 at 18:19
    
Some journalists are using the AP Stylebook which as of 2007, when the edition I have was printed, uses e-mail. –  Picturepocket Sep 2 '10 at 13:38
    
I believe "email" was only recently inducted into one of the standard dictionaries (I can't find a source). I think you'll see that it becomes more widespread than "e-mail" in the future. –  Joe Philllips Sep 23 '10 at 3:22
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AP changed their style from e-mail to email in March 2011. –  JLG Mar 8 '12 at 23:34
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Both are correct and common. I'd recommend the shorter and simpler email.

There seems to be a tendency to drop hyphen as a newly coined word becomes more and more commonplace:

electronic mail → e-mail → email

That is what I've read earlier somewhere, and looking around I now found at least this quote by Donald Knuth to support the claim:

Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write "non-zero" and "soft-ware" instead of "nonzero" and "software"; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words. Thus it's high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling "e-mail". Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form "email" has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard.

Even if you ignore that, overwhelming evidence seems to suggest that "email" is the form that everyone is likely to eventually settle upon (so you might just as well go with that now):

  • Most dictionaries use "email"; see the "Spelling" section in Wikipedia's Email article
    • Do also note the title of that article...
  • This note on the Wikipedia talk page points out that "email" is used almost unanimously by both email web service providers and client software authors, Microsoft being a lone proponent of "e-mail".
    • More recently even Microsoft seems to have given in (partially)! Although Outlook is still called an "e-mail" management tool, Hotmail now claims to be The efficient way to do email.

That said, if you deliberately want to sound ultra-formal or ceremonial, go with "electronic mail". :-)

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Apparently Knuth wrote that sometime in the 1990s, so I guess now in 2010s it really would be high time to stop using the spelling he called "archaic" :) –  Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 17:34
    
(Yes, I realise the hyphenated form will probably take a couple more decades to die out. Let's see if email—as the technology we know today—will still be around then...) –  Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 17:37
    
"email" is never once used in RFC2282. They use e-mail in scentences and when listing contact information: "EMail: asdf@example.com." Wikipedia is not a valid source, it's an aggregate of other sources. –  Incognito Aug 27 '10 at 13:05
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Umm, RFC 2282, "IAB and IESG Selection, Confirmation, and Recall Proc" – what does that have to do with this? (Incidentally, "email" is used in that document.) In any case, look at a recent email-related RFC, such as 5321 on SMTP and you'll see it does prefer "email" over "e-mail". –  Jonik Aug 27 '10 at 13:34
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As for Wikipedia, "aggregate of sources" is exactly what I used it as. –  Jonik Aug 27 '10 at 13:35
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I generally use "email". I think people who work with technology use "email" and people who write about it use "e-mail" (though this isn't a standard).

Google, Yahoo and Apple use "email". USAToday, CNN and the New York Times use "e-mail".

According to wikipedia: There are several spelling variations that occasionally prove cause for surprisingly vehement disagreement.

  • email is the form required by IETF Requests for Comment and working groups. This spelling also appears in most dictionaries.
  • e-mail is a form recommended by some prominent journalistic and technical style guides.

Read more on: Email

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Your notion that "people who work with technology use 'email' and people who write about it use 'e-mail'" seems to be spot-on, looking at nohat's findings. –  Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 17:54
    
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The New Oxford American Dictionary reports that the word is e-mail, but also email.

Wiktionary has a voice for e-mail where it's reported email as alternative spelling, and the following note:

The spellings e-mail and email are both in common use. The use of email is now more widespread, likely due to one less character and thus making it easier to write or type, and is becoming a standardized usage for most businesses and Internet users. In general, the hyphenated form is more likely to be considered proper by those who follow strict grammatical rules; however, as a recently coined word, it remains an unsettled matter at this point.

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Using "email" is fine and probably more common in English, but do be aware that many languages that borrow from English only use "e-mail" because "email" is already a different word in Dutch, French, etc.

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Very Good point! –  Armstrongest Aug 25 '10 at 16:30
    
Although "Email" also means enamel in German, I doubt there is any context where ambiguity is a real problem. So I use "Email" exclusively. –  Kim Sep 26 '10 at 7:02
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French speakers have courriel as a good substitute of e-mail. Also the pronunciation of the word émail meaning enamel is very different of the imported english email so there would not be any confusion when speaking. –  ogerard May 13 '11 at 6:16
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The famous computer scientist Donald Knuth wrote in 1990 (!):

A note on email versus e-mail

Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write non-zero and soft-ware instead of nonzero and software; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words.

Thus it's high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling e-mail. Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form email has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard.

(Of course, email has been a familiar word in France, Germany, and the Netherlands much longer than in England --- but for an entirely different reason.)

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Our tech magazine switched from e-mail to email (and from e-book to ebook) within the past year, over the vigorous opposition of the copy editors.

The copy editors' position was that e-mail preserves the special status of the "e" as the sole surviving remnant of an entire word (electronic), as do the spellings A-bomb ("A" for atomic), B-boy ("B" for break), C-section ("C" for cesarean), f-stop ("f" for focal), g-force ("g" for gravity), H-bomb ("H" for hydrogen). M-day ("M" for mobilization), n-type ("n" for negative), P-wave ("P" for pressure), R-value ("R" for resistance), and T-bill ("T" for Treasury). The only arguable exception to this pattern that I'm aware of (aside from the disputed email and ebook) is Xmas ("X" [standing in for chi] for Christ)--and that example has problems of its own, starting with the fact that it's a shortened form of a word that is already closed up).

The copy editors further argued that the vast majority of the 55 "e-" words that had shown up at least once in articles for our magazine over the previous ten years benefited from hyphenation as a way to clarify to readers that the words bore the sense "electronic." Here are some of those terms: e-banking, e-based, e-billing, e-book, e-card, e-census, e-commerce, e-crime, e-customers, e-dating, e-education, e-entertainment, e-filing, e-finance, e-government, e-health, e-ink, e-learning, e-lending, e-magazine [sometimes e-zine], e-money, e-music, e-newspaper, e-payments, e-privacy, e-reader, e-recycling [sometimes e-cycling], e-retailer [sometimes e-tailer], e-schools, e-services, e-shoppers, e-tax, e-ticketing, e-travel, e-voting, e-wallet, e-waste, e-work. As a matter of consistency, the copy editors argued, we should handle all "e-for-electronic" constructions the same way--and realistically that would mean hyphenating all of them, since no one was advocating for ebased, eeducation, eink, eretailer, or ewaste.

The countervailing argument was that spelling e-mail with a hyphen made us look old-fashioned, and that maintaining a broadly consistent approach to punctuation was overrated.

Here's a radical idea: Maybe all of these words of the G-man ("G" for government) type aren't "compound words" as we normally understand that term. Maybe instead they're a special class of contractions, with three distinguishing characteristics:

  1. The first word of the contracted phrase is reduced to a single letter.

  2. That first letter is pronounced as the letter itself, rather than as the sound it would have represented in the original phrase.

  3. To indicate the unusual nature of the contraction, we use a hyphen instead of an apostrophe for punctuation.

One point in favor of interpreting these words as contractions is that in their spelled-out form they are neither hyphenated nor closed up: cesarean section, electronic mail, hydrogen bomb. The same characteristic applies to he will, is not, and we had. One very strong argument against doing so is that, as Mr. Scott says, "It's never been done." In any event, contractions tend not to lose their identifying punctuation, which puts them on a very different footing from the nonce words (such as "soft-ware" and "bee-keeper") that other answerers have mentioned.

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Email (with no hyphen). See Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on:

About 16,000 words have succumbed to pressures of the Internet age and lost their hyphens in a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Bumble-bee is now bumblebee, ice-cream is ice cream and pot-belly is pot belly.

And if you've got a problem, don't be such a crybaby (formerly cry-baby). [...]

Researchers examined a corpus of more than 2 billion words, consisting of full sentences that appeared in newspapers, books, Web sites and blogs from 2000 onwards. For the most part, the dictionary dropped hyphens from compound nouns, which were unified in a single word (e.g. pigeonhole) or split into two (e.g. test tube).

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@Hugo You could have simply added the summary yourself. Contributing is always better than a slap in the face. –  Nathan Arthur Nov 7 '11 at 20:36
    
@nathan: Yes, going and reading a linked page and summarising it in an edit is the best thing to do. Unfortunately I don't always have time to edit in a summary, so contributing a comment warning about linkrot helps the answerer (and others) know that plain link answers aren't very useful. Anyway, thanks for taking the time for the edit :) –  Hugo Nov 7 '11 at 22:27
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@Hugo Thanks for pointing me to that discussion. Point well taken. =) –  Nathan Arthur Nov 8 '11 at 18:05
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For personal use, both forms are perfectly acceptable. However, in professional use, check with your company to see if they have a style guide and what it says for email. My company specifies email as the "proper" use.

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I would go with email, e-mail is obsolete now from what I've seen. As J.R. points out in a comment, consistency is the key.

If you wanted to be absolutely sure, you could look at the recipient's website or business card and use the same version they do.

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Time for a Google Fight!!! Okay, it would appear, surprisingly enough... that e-mail took round 1!!!

Yes, this issue is far from resolved, but I would go with e-mail if you're writing anything that will end up in print. In addition, everywhere in Outlook (an e-mail client) the word shows up as e-mail.

For now... "e-mail" appears to be the correct spelling.

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Incidentally, Outlook is almost the only popular email client to use "e-mail" [source]. –  Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 18:43
    
@Jonik. Yep, and it's also the most widely used e-mail client by far: campaignmonitor.com/stats/email-clients Especially is this the case in more formal environments, corporate environments, etc. –  Armstrongest Aug 31 '10 at 19:42
    
A year and a half later email is now winning by 1 120 000 000 to 686 000 000. You're looking at evolution in action. –  Wayne Johnston Mar 24 '12 at 2:27
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AP Style is now email, with no hyphen. They made the announcement in March 2011.

http://www.ap.org/pages/about/pressreleases/pr_031811b.html

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The entry in the OED is for email. My Internet company was involved in getting the OED online and I got to know the OED's Chief Editor. In 1997 I pleaded with him to change the entry to e-mail, because it's a shortened form of "electronic mail".

He said that the OED entry reflected what people used now which, back in 1997, had moved to email.

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E-mail is short for "electronic mail." Usually for words of this form -- a compound word in which the first word is shortened to a single letter -- the hyphen remains. Compare, for example, U-boat.

I also think keeping the hyphen makes more sense given the pronunciation of the word: EE-mail, not em-AIL.

E-mail is still considered standard English in formal writing, but give it a few years, and email will probably take over.

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protected by RegDwigнt May 15 '11 at 16:20

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