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TWTS: A guide to counting your email(s)

Almost as long as there's been email, there's been the question of what the plural of "email" should be. 

A listener named Steve Roznowski reminded us of this recently, when he pointed out that Professor Anne Curzan says "emails." Roznowski says he uses "email" for both the plural and singular form.

At this point, "email" and "emails" are both considered standard for plural use, but how did we get here? 

The word "email" first shows up in 1970. The Oxford English Dictionary has a quote from 1979 that describes a message-sending system known as "electronic mail" or "email."

There used to be a lot a lot of confusion over how to spell this term. Some of you probably remember capitalizing the “e” or using a hyphen between "e" and "mail." It actually took the New York Times' style guide until 2013 to authorize us to get rid of the hyphen.

Tossing out a hyphen may seem trivial, but it shows how over time, "email" has drifted away from "mail." That is, "email" has become its own word as opposed to where it derives from, "electronic mail."

When it comes to the plural form of mail, i.e. "snail mail," we talk about "pieces of mail" or "letters." We don't say "mails," but we do say "emails." More evidence of “email” drifting from its roots.

At its core, this is really about countable vs. uncountable nouns. A noun like "water" is uncountable. In order to count it, we talk about drops of water or glasses of water. On the other hand, a noun like "letter" is countable -- we can talk about one letter, or we can talk about hundreds of letters.

There is a process where uncountable nouns become countable.

Take “beer,” for example. You can say “beer” to refer to the liquid on its own -- "I was drinking beer last night.” But you can also say, "I had three beers last night,” in which you're talking about glasses of beer or bottles of beer. It means something different than just “beer.”

The same thing has happened with "email." It can refer to a particular system of sending messages, in which case it's uncountable. It can also refer to the messages that we send over email, the system, in which case it is countable.

That leaves us with two plural forms for email. You can say "three emails" or "three email." Since they're both acceptable, the choice is yours.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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