This is in response to a page (scroll to the bottom) I stumbled upon (in the traditional manner).  On this page Professor Donald E. Knuth (Stanford University) puts forward the argument that since words will traditionally lose their hyphens once they have been commonly accepted into the vernacular, we should drop the hyphen from e-mail.  Where I do believe that much of what he says is correct, I also see e-mail as a particular case where his arguments should not apply.  I will give three reasons to support this claim.

First, though it is true that words will generally lose their hyphens after some appropriate break-in period, it is not the case that all hyphenated words will necessarily lose their hyphens.  He does offer a couple of good examples of recent additions to the English language which have appropriately dropped their hyphens: nonzero and software.  However, counter-culture, counter-clockwise (and anit-clockwise), drug-addicted, free-range, ex-wife, multi-protocol, and right-click are pretty much doomed to always carry around that little extra punctuation.  No harm there.

Second, it would seem more than a little odd to talk about a breakin period.  (Is that a period of break dancing?.)  There are clearly examples where the hyphen is required for clarity.  Break-in, re-examine, and re-organize are all good examples where their unhyphenated counterparts are clumsy, to say the least, as they are parsed along the page.  Breakin, reexamine, and reorganize become difficult for the reader to read.

These two have addressed the problem of hyphenation in general, but my third point relates directly to e-mail.  The e in question is short for electronic, so what we are really talking about is electronic mail.  This mode of conjoining words is very different from compounding two words in the ordinary manner, such as door and knob creating doorknob.  As such I am inclined to think that words created in this manner are less prone to losing their hyphens than compound words created through the more traditional channels.

For these reasons—because not all words lose their hyphens, because e-mail is easier to parse on the page, and because e-mail is a special case of compounding words—we should retain the hyphen in e-mail.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged.


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