The New York Times removes hyphen from ‘e-mail’

So, The New York Times has updated its style guide, and the most intriguing change – for me – is that NYT editors are now allowed to spell e-mail as ’email’.

“By popular demand, we’re going to remove the hyphen from e-mail,” wrote Times editor Patrick LaForge in a post on the newsroom’s internal blog, he confirmed in an email. The Times had been one of the last holdouts still using the hyphenated “e-mail,” a vestige of the “information superhighway” era of the Internet. The AP stylebook removed the hyphen in email in 2011. But the e- prefix is not completely dead at The Times; e-book will maintain its hyphenated status.

E-mail is actually a very problematic word in Dutch as well. Technically speaking, ‘e-mail’ is an abbreviation of ‘electronic mail’. In Dutch, compound nouns consisting of a loose letter or acronym combined with a regular noun are always hyphenated (for instance, we write ‘tv-zender’, which means ‘TV channel’). This means that the the noun ‘e-mail’ is always hyphenated in Dutch. This is where it gets interesting.

Many Dutch people, especially in casual writing, spell ‘e-mail’ without a hyphen. Personally, I would never do this, since correct spelling and grammar is a huge part of my job (I’m a translator with my own little translation business), but it’s still quite common. This is quite problematic because ’email’ without a hyphen means something completely different. ‘Email’, in Dutch, means ‘enamel’, as in tooth enamel. For language geeks such as myself, reading “Ik stuur je wel even een email” (“I’ll send you an enamel”) is weirdly hilarious.

The hyphenation rule regarding compound nouns with single letters or acronyms is a very solid rule in Dutch, and it’s unlikely an exception will be made for e-mail.

We can go even deeper into the intricacies of the Dutch language. Obviously, ‘e-mail’ can function both as a noun and as a verb – which, obviously, can be conjugated. This is where the idiosyncrasies of the Dutch language really start adding up, leading to what can only be regarded as one of the biggest abominations recently added to Dutch. Here’s a summarised present tense/paste tense conjugation of the Dutch verb ‘e-mailen’:

ik e-mail ik e-mailde
hij/zij e-mailt hij/zij e-mailde
wij e-mailen wij e-mailden

So far, so good – this doesn’t look very weird to native Dutch speakers. Now let’s take a look at the past participle, used in a present perfect (as a sidenote: I’m not sure I’m using the correct English grammatical terms for all the tenses – I purposefully unlearned those years ago because I found they interfered with my instinctive ability to form proper English tenses).

ik heb ge-e-maild

Double hyphen! Even though this is correct, proper Dutch verb conjugation and spelling, many language experts will actually advise against using this, urging people to come up with workarounds (“Ik heb een e-mail gestuurd”; “I have sent an e-mail”) instead. The weird thing is that in speech, ‘ge-e-maild’ sounds perfectly fine; in writing, however, it looks like you’re stuttering while choking on a chili pepper. It’s just… Wrong. Even though it’s correct.

There are more instances like this, where the rise of computer technology and the dominance of English has spawned some seriously disturbing Dutch verb conjugations (my personal favourite: ‘ge-ftp’d’). These clearly look alien and foreign to us Dutch today, and only time will tell if they ever get assimilated into Dutch spelling in such a way that they will lose their alien nature.


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