When copying someone in an email, should we say copied in or copied on? I was almost positive that in was the only correct usage until I hit google and was surprised to see on more prevalent. Could someone explain why on could be used in this context as we say something in an email not on an email?

I copied him on this email.

I copied him in this email.

  • It's essentially, "I copied him on [the matter of] this email" – Jim Jun 12 '12 at 5:33
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    I think of the "on" as not referring to the email contents, but to the distribution list for the email - one is "on" the list of recipients. Related may be the older phrase used with discussion of hard copies of documents distributed: "I cc'd him on this memo" rather than "I cc'd him in this memo". – Keith Flower Jun 12 '12 at 6:18
  • Or into: (I copied him into this email) to add him into the list of recipients. Or even in on (I copied him in on this email) -- I can't explain that odd construction but it is used at least colloquially. – Andrew Leach Jun 12 '12 at 7:07
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    Prepositions are notoriously fickle in how they're paired with verbs (in many languages, not just English). That said, I always say/hear copied on, and never copied in. – McGarnagle Jun 12 '12 at 7:58
  • How about "I copied him this email" ...? – GEdgar Jun 12 '12 at 14:33

Both are new expressions, and haven't gone through the full evolutionary process yet. Both are used, and both are useful. Also, they both make sense, which is not a requirement, but always helps.

Usually in refers to a 3-dimensional container, while on refers to a 2-dimensional surface.

  • The book is in the box or on the table.

So the question is whether an email has 2 or 3 dimensions. Then the rule will be:

Use in if it's 3 and on if it's 2.

Unfortunately, however, the whole phenomenon of email happens metaphorically, so there's nothing with any real dimensions to hold on to. The only thing one actually sees is letters on a screen arranged in a particular way. It turns out that there are two metaphorical ways we can interpret, speak about, and think about it -- or at least that's all we've thought of so far. Email is pretty new.

One way is to use the metaphor theme

  • An Email is a Letter.

Since letters are on paper, and paper is 2-dimensional, this allows on. That is, we speak (and think) of the email as being flat; therefore something can be on it.

The other metaphor theme that we use is to focus on the contents of an email.

  • An Email is an Information Container

Containers are almost exclusively 3-dimensional, so this allows in.

Both views are reasonable, though neither is actually real. Computers are so new in our experience that we're constantly inventing new metaphors to talk about them, and we can switch views without blinking, or even noticing what we've done. After all, all computer terms are metaphors, dragged in from somewhere else and assigned a new meaning -- for instance,

editor, file, folder, spreadsheet, hacking, jump drive, slide show, the Net, the Web, surfing, spam, overflow, virus, worm, cut-and-paste, cyberspace, garbage, troll, wizard, etc.

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I believe in/on for email works more or less like a memo or letter. With a letter or memo, there is a main body, as well as address/signature/cc information, and in is usually reserved for the main body. You sign your name on a letter, and not in a letter. If you say "I included the return address in the letter", it sounds to me like you mean that it is in the body of the letter. But if you say "the return address is on the letter", it could be in the upper right corner, where return addresses traditionally are.

So since you don't copy emails to people in the main body of the email, you have to say "I copied you on this email."

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