“email” vs “emails”

Obviously I’ve got my copy of the new Guardian and I’ll have more to say about it later on.

But I just wanted to raise a point about the letters page. They’ve renamed it “Letters and Emails”. Now that makes sense on one level as I assume that a large proportion of the letters aren’t actually sent through the post any more.

My issue is with the use of the word “emails”. Given that “email” is based on the word “mail” then I’d expect it to follow the same rules. And the plural of “mail” is… well it doesn’t really have one. It’s a weird noun that is only ever used in the singular. “I got a lot of mail yesterday”[1]. “Email” should follow the same usage.

Which of these sounds better?

“How much email do you get in a day?”
“How many emails do you get in a day?”

“I have too much email in my inbox”
“I have too many emails in my inbox”

I feel a letter (or, rather, an email) to the editor coming on.

[1] Ignoring, for a second, the fact that if you were speaking British English you’d actually use “post” instead of “mail”.

Join the conversation

6 Comments

  1. Then again, you send “a letter” and you send “an email”. Therefore, the Guardian receives letters and emails.A lot of people use the plural form “emails” as you described. I’d say that both forms are roughly equally valid.One thing that does annoy me is when technical pedantry overrides clear usage. For example, these people who insist that “data” is a plural (since when did anyone ever use the singular “datum”) and then write such atrocities as “The data are loaded into memory”. This is nonsense!

  2. Interesting. Mail is a ‘mass noun’ like furniture or traffic, which means that it doesn’t have a plural, and you get too much of it rather than too many of them.

    I (and obviously you) use email as a mass noun, but some people use it as a count noun, to mean what I would call an email message. Toast is like that as well: I use it purely as a mass noun, but some people also use it as a count noun to mean what I would call a slice or round of toast.

    It’s no use getting all protective of one’s idiolect. Enjoy the variation, and marvel that we can understand one another at all!

    PS to Ian: I was trained by a pedantic mother to use data as a plural count noun rather than a mass noun, and ‘the data are’ doesn’t sound the least bit strange or confusing to me. Does it actually confuse you to hear “the data are loaded”, or do you just find it annoying to hear a usage that differs from your own?

  3. Robin: When I took my computer science degree, and in most of the computing books that I have read, data is used in its singular form. Therefore, that’s what I’m used to. Also, based on the number of uses that I have seen I’d guess that the singular form is the most common. (This might be an American English usage.) So if “correct” means “most common” then I’d argue that the singular form is correct. (Of course, there’s really no such thing as correct, just standard usage.)I do actually find this quite confusing, since it really breaks the flow of the sentence in a way that I don’t expect as a reader. In addition, when people write about a single piece of data and then start using plurals it gets confusing.

  4. You’re definitely right that the mass-noun usage is normal these days, at least in computer-related contexts. (I suspect that the plural usage may still be common, or at least non-extinct, in some other scientific fields.)

    When my Mum taught medical students, if a student submitted an essay which used the word data as a mass noun, she’d send it straight back with DATA ARE PLURAL written across it in red ink. At least she claims that’s what she did, and I have no reason to doubt it! Perhaps some of her former students are similarly conditioned.

    It sounds all right to me either way, but don’t tell my Mum that. ;-)

  5. email sounds more elegant.for some reason when i hear someone use the word emailsi think of them as not thoughtful…not smart.like someone that uses double negativesor says “could care less” when what they mean is that theycould not care less.think about it.i don’t intend to imply that language should not evolve;just that evolution should be workable and logical.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.