This is a thinly veiled rant, I realize, but if anybody can rationalize "emails" for me in such a way that I can stop grabbing people who say it, and asking them if they've ever gone to their mailsbox to retrieve the mails left for them by the mailsman... I would very much appreciate it.

I realize it's probably pure laziness, but maybe someone can rationalize this in such a way that I can stop cringing every time I see it used in a professional setting.

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    Just out of curiosity, what is your preferred term? Fill in the blank: "I have 4 _______________ from last week that I haven't answered." Sep 2, 2010 at 21:25
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    The plural of mailbox is mailboxes, and the plural of mailman is mailmen; the plural of mail is mails. The fact the plural for mail is mails doesn't implicate that the plural of mailbox is mailsbox (which is not the correct plural).
    – apaderno
    Sep 2, 2010 at 23:57
  • @Boofus: eletters, obviously!
    – moioci
    Sep 3, 2010 at 23:46
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    @Boofus McGoofus: individual instances of electronically delivered textual correspondence?
    – e.James
    Sep 4, 2010 at 5:37
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    @tchrist: But the same is not true for email, otherwise, "Send me an email" would be incorrect, just as "Send me a mail" is incorrect. Dec 21, 2012 at 3:31

5 Answers 5


According to Merriam-Webster,

2 b: an e-mail message <sent him an e–mail>

Wiktionary agrees:

e-mail (countable and uncountable; plural e-mails)
2. (countable, see Usage notes below)
A message sent via an e-mail system. I am searching through my old e-mails. He sent me several e-mails last week to that effect.

The usage notes read as follows:

As a contraction of electronic mail, some feel that e-mail should follow the same pluralization rules and be uncountable, prohibiting the forms e-mails and an e-mail. Others feel that it is not necessary for e-mail to maintain grammatical similarity to mail, and prefer to pluralize the term as a countable noun. This issue is hotly debated, but it is seldom considered incorrect to use the uncountable form.

To all this, I will add that it's rather cumbersome to say "X pieces of email" every time you could just as well say "X emails". You could call that laziness or sloppiness, if you wish, but that's how it often starts.

See it this way: even water and cheese can be countable in context. And you probably don't cringe when you hear someone ordering two coffees.

Now, if only there were such a thing as electronic letters in addition to electronic mail... Alas, that didn't quite catch on.

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    I am in complete agreement; furthermore, if you object to someone saying "5 emails", then you must also object to "I got an email". The key is the last thing that RegDwight says: for physical mail, we call individual items packages or letters, but for email, the individual item is called email — probably "eletter" just didn't sound catchy (and I would agree).
    – Kosmonaut
    Sep 2, 2010 at 23:28
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    Those references still hyphenate email? For me, email is always uncountable. Individual email items are messages (or email messages when the context is ambiguous). Feb 9, 2011 at 23:56

I use both "emails" and "email" in the following manner:

  1. I need to check my email.
  2. I sent you several emails, to which you have yet to respond.

My rationalization for #2 is that "emails" is short for "email messages". I would never, however, say "I need to check my emails," because in "I need to check my email," the word "email" is a collective noun (to me at least).

I should also point out that this is the usage I have seen in business in the New England and Midwestern regions of the US (American English). Usage in British English may be different.

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    It beats e-letters, anyway.
    – mmyers
    Sep 2, 2010 at 21:21
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    +1 for the examples of when singular and plural are appropriate
    – b.roth
    Sep 3, 2010 at 11:04
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    Not collective noun, mass noun. Jan 16, 2013 at 19:29
  • I agree with this, but would add that I might find it acceptable to use "check my emails' in the context of (say)checking multiple web-mail accounts. I'd probably still use "checking my email" personally though.
    – Kyudos
    Jan 17, 2013 at 1:57
  • I was taught "collective", but I'm on the other side of the pond from Edwin, so your terminology may differ. The idea is the same, though.
    – ssakl
    Jun 16, 2018 at 3:05

It is mostly unfortunate that the original evangelists of email decided to use the metaphor of the postal service to describe the new electronic message format. Instead of thinking of email as literally electronic post, think of it as bad PR.

An email message is not carried to your computer by little electronic ponies across the electric Wild West, nor is it trudged to your terminal by little electronic men and women wearing their little electronic blue shorts. Thankfully, there aren't electronic post offices at which you have to go and wait for hours while someone's electronic child wails behind you.

Other than sharing the word "mail" and serving to transport thoughts between a rhetor and audience, physical post and electronic messages are two wildly different things.

The word "email" is part of a living usage set. Just because Random House and Britannica can't keep up with how a word is used does not mean that such usage is wrong. Have a Google for a gent named Philip Gove (or have a read about him here) and you'll be introduced to the centuries-old conflict between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries and their ability to stay relevant to living languages.

The noun "email," today, has a commonly accepted usage roughly framed as "a message transported electronically" Something more specific is of course necessary (involving mailserver protocols and all that) but this is what people mean.

You'd likely not want to throttle someone for saying "I sent three messages yesterday," because that's a common usage. Just as common usage has progressed from "Web site" to "web site" to "website," so to has it progressed from "E-mail" to "e-mail" to "email." The word itself no longer requires its original expansion because, frankly, the usage is common knowledge.

If such ruminations aren't adequate, however, you might instead rationalize it by telling yourself that such persons are using "a letter" as the metaphor for "an email," and therefore are in the clear when saying "letters"/"emails."

(To note, the above-linked essay is from my own hand. I'm not hit-trolling, just that it draws from some 18 other sources on the topic of Mr. Webster, Mr. Gove and the tendency for prescriptive dictionaries to become minimized and irrelevant.)

  • 1
    Amusing, elegant and pertinent. +1
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 4, 2014 at 5:32
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    Thank you for digging this up... I'd forgotten how much fun it was to answer these questions way back when.
    – Matthew
    Dec 4, 2014 at 9:21
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    FYI: Your link to the description of Phillip Gove's activities has rotted, but I found a page with a similar title here.
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 4, 2014 at 10:11
  • Ah, yep that's the same page -- a rather old blog of mine that appears to not have withstood the test of time.
    – Matthew
    Dec 5, 2014 at 10:03

This is a thinly veiled rant, I realize, but if anybody can rationalize "emails" for me in such a way that I can stop grabbing people who say it, and asking them if they've ever gone to their mailsbox to retrieve the mails left for them by the mailsman... I would very much appreciate it.

In English, when a noun modifies a second noun, the first noun is always singular. For example, the shop which sells shoes is a "shoe shop" rather than a "shoes shop". Similarly, regardless of whether mail is countable or uncountable, the box where the mail(s) are is a "mail box" and similarly for "mail man".

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    Other examples that illustrate this: "pant leg", "student housing".
    – Kosmonaut
    Sep 3, 2010 at 0:07
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    In English, when a noun modifies a second noun, the first noun is always singular. Someone had better tell various authorities, including dictionaries, that they shouldn't allow events manager, sales and operations planning, sports centre or systems analyst. Jan 18, 2013 at 23:19

While the verb email is a direct analog to the verb mail, the noun email is a direct analog to the noun letter, and can therefore be pluralized... yes, I retrieve the letters left for me by the mailman, and if you sent me two messages via email, I would read both those emails.

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