The Language of Email

Brad Fliss

Copyright 2003





As the most familiar and widely used mode of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), email is undoubtedly an influential force in contemporary communication exchange.  Due to inexpensive pricing and accessibility, email is replacing both the telephone and the traditional letter as most convenient means of two-person discourse.  In 1998, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that almost four trillion email messages had been exchanged that year as compared to the 107 billion articles sent first-class through the US post office (Baron, 227), and, predictably, the numbers have continued to rise by staggering degrees, as similar studies have estimated that the total daily number of personal emails alone being exchanged in 2002 was 8 billion, not accounting for business-oriented communication.  This increasing level of electronic communicative exchange must necessarily affect the way users of email are interacting with each other (Baron, 245).


Making definitive claims, however, regarding the effect of CMC on the English language remains difficult.  For one, widespread email access and usage has only been around for about ten years, making observable linguistic changes premature.  Secondly, most studies synchronically base their research on publicly-posted exchanges of email messages from a short time frame, unable to observe either consistent or evolving practices nor compare their results adequately with one-on-one, or “private,” correspondences.  Nevertheless, many of these studies do share similar results from which to establish a base of analyses that may be validated or contradicted as email usage evolves and future studies are undertaken.  These early observations, then, are useful in accounting for the way email has shaped and been shaped by preconceived standards of discourse in contrast to other modes of communication.



Writing Based ?


Early attempts to characterize the language of email tended to argue for the predominance of either an oral or a writing based standard of communication, though almost all contemporary studies seem to agree that electronic language use is influenced by both equally or else falls into a separate category outside of this dichotomy.  It is useful to look at email in relation to this binary categorization, however, as a means of understanding how it is utilized, and thus shaped, as well as how it influences the use of language contained therein.


One of the more remarkable ways in which email resembles the traditional letter is the fixed structure of discourse that email messages are composed from.  Following the structural elements of a business-like memo, typically including a “To” and “From” address, a subject header, a space for carbon copies, and a message body, this practice has become increasingly standardized among compositional software and widely recognized and accepted by email users.  This structural format is an adaptation of the intra-organizational memorandum, a template originally created in the late nineteenth century for succinct communication within a large economic or governmental body (Danet, 52).  Indeed, despite over a decade of software development, the structural properties of email have not avoided this bureaucratic inheritance and retain a very impersonal and professional-looking appearance.


Another example of the pervasive influence of traditional letter writing upon email composition is the tendency to include both a greeting and a farewell signature, each element usually given its own line and separated from the main body message.  Though with the sender usually revealed in the “From” header, a farewell signature may seem redundant.  Linguist David Crystal, in his detailed study of the linguistic components in email composition, insists that the farewell signature serves two functions that are not found in traditional letter writing.  Primarily, he claims that “it acts as a boundary marker, indicating that further scrolling down is unnecessary…that no further personalized test is following” (Crystal, 105).  Also, the farewell signature serves as an identifier in case the message is forwarded to other recipients or quoted in a public communication field, such as a listserv. 


The social dynamic of email communication also resembles that of writing, as both correspondents are separated physically from each other, which, as a result, promotes a greater intimacy or personal disclosure than face-to-face communication affords.  Moreover, the anonymity and depersonalized presence provided by email tends to help “level the conversational playing field,” as relationships of differing social status or power tend to be less apparent within email correspondences (Harrison, 71). Additionally, several studies have indicated that CMC greatly differs from standard letter writing in the distribution of different types of pronouns, as the former far exceeds the proportional use of first and second person pronouns found in the latter, suggesting that the kind of intimacy more closely resembles speech communication, where we expect to see a higher proportional use of first and second person pronouns (Yates, 41-42).


Or Oral Based?


The inattention to or omission of punctuation is typical of most informal correspondence and suggests a more fluid, speech-like means of communicating.  As Crystal has noted of email, “Punctuation tends to be minimalist in most situations…It is an important area, for it is the chief means a language has for bringing writing into direct contact with (the prosody and paralanguage of) speech” (Crystal, 89).  The suggestion here is that an informal or nonstandard use of punctuation brings text closer to speech by subverting traditional rules of letter composition.  The function of punctuation may also be extended to exaggerate emotion or personal expression through excessive repetition of a particular punctuation mark:



            Is that true????????


or in combination with other punctuation marks to add further contextual emphasis:


            I’m confused!??!

            That’s *!^&#  ridiculous! 


Web critic Jay David Bolter posits that “The desire to contextualize in this way shows that the implicit model is not written or printed text at all, but face-to-face conversation or perhaps conversation on the telephone” (Bolter, 73).  In this light, the implementation of auxiliary punctuation may be a way of recuperating the loss of facial gestures, body language, and other contextual cues normally observed in face-to-face conversation, and thus demonstrating a textual drive towards orality.


Other notable characteristics of email suggest both an influence from and a move towards informal speech communication, what Crystal calls a “contemporary bias towards informality” (Crystal, 107).  Even in formal business writing, a move towards a more lenient acceptance of informality in communication parallels an increasing acceptance of informality in the corporate workplace in general, such as the recent trend of having “dress-down” days for workers who desire to wear more casual attire to the office (Danet, 99, n.69).  In professional discourse, however, this bias arises in response to an ever imposing demand for concentrated and rapid transmission of information through CMC.  Attesting to this is the commonly held view that the body message of an email should ideally be constrained to a single screen view so that scrolling is not necessary.  The reception of information should be as immediate as possible.


It is readily apparent to anyone familiar with the internet that the vast majority of online text is not case-sensitive.  Similarly, there is a correlating tendency in electronic text to use capitals randomly or not at all, where a letter composed entirely in lowercase letters would not seem unacceptable to the casual reader.  The occurrence of irregular lowercase usage may be grammatical, if pertaining to sentence-initial, or it may be lexical, if pertaining to proper names.  For example:


i will be there with susan around noon.

are you headed to halifax this evening?


This tendency is also influenced by the seeming rule for quick, speech-like communication which moves towards the elimination of additional keystrokes whenever possible.  As a result, use of capitalization can sometimes be used to express intonation or added emphasis:


you MUST be kidding me.

i didn’t KNOW he was ill.


In the same manner, punctuation, contractions, and spelling are often inaccurate, neglected, and left unedited:


I couldnt attend Mikes suprise partya fter all.


or else intentionally and playfully altered to achieve a more informal, personable effect:


kay, will cu s/where round the skool at 1030 tuhmorrow. plz be there.


In the former case, the lack of attention to these characteristics is generally not taken by the recipient to indicate a poor level of education in the sender, nor would such deviations pose problems of ambiguity or illegibility, but rather it is commonly understood to be the result of the typing speed and time constraints in which the message was probably composed.  Though non-standard spelling is held in low regard in traditional letter writing, it is often excused or ignored in email correspondence, even considered by some to be a “natural feature” of electronic communication (Crystal, 111).  In the latter example, exclusively found in informal and more personal exchanges, and even more commonly amongst younger correspondents, the effect is both one of speech imitation and a heightened personality presence compared to more formal or professional modes of communication.  In addition to intentional misspellings, this example also demonstrates the use of colloquial abbreviations (“plz” for please, “kay” for “okay”), shorthand (“s/where” for “somewhere”), and trendy acronyms (“cu” for “see you”), all of which are characterized as ‘Netspeak,’ an extremely informal type of English slang used in electronic communication which implements both graphological and lexical deviation. 


Much more akin to oral communication than written exchange, the body element of email messages, when utilizing the “Reply-To-Sender” response option, engages in a dialogic relationship with previous correspondences.  This option will insert previous threads of text with which the sender and the recipient have been exchanging, though previous text will be typographically distinguished as such, usually displayed with right-pointing angle brackets at the beginning of each line.  In this way, entire message or individual points and ideas from previous threads may be inserted into new the new text to either remind the recipient of what was last written or to create a dialogue with previous text point by point.  Thus, an original sample text:


How are you today? Did you see the game?


Could be replied to in several different ways:


> How are you today? Did you see the game?

Im doing fine. Yes I did see the game.


            Im doing fine. Yes I did see the game.

            >How are you today? Did you see the game?


            >How are you today?

            Im doing fine.

            >Did you see the game?

            Yes I did see the game.


The first response immediately reminds the recipient of their own last message, but then delays the recipient’s access to the new thread of text, perhaps unnecessarily so if the recipient’s last message was replied to in a short period of time and thus the topic at hand still clear without the reminder.  Conversely, the second example provides the new text immediately, but risks ambiguity or confusion in putting off the questions being replied to, especially if there has been an extended period of time between the last two correspondences.  The “framing” that occurs in the third example, however, deserves greater attention as its communicative function is unlike any other mode of communication.


Unique to Email


This third example of message intercalation, known as “framing,” a particularly exclusive feature of email language which utilizes the unique potential of electronic communication, is a compromise between the previous two examples, and most closely resembles oral dialogue, something nearly impossible to achieve in traditional letter writing (Crystal, 118).  Framing enables quick and facile responses to individual points or questions raised in lengthy blocks of text and allows the sender to reorder these previous points to suit the new body message.  Thus questions posed toward the bottom of a previous message can be quoted and responded to in the beginning of the new message, depending on the interest or strategy of the sender, saving both time and lengthy recapitulation.  In this way, old threads of text are constantly being reinvented each time they are quoted or responded to, physically amalgamating with the new text.  Remarking on the “physically adjacent but semantically unrelated paragraphs” inherent in email correspondence, Crystal claims that, while “a single piece of text may be preserved throughout a thread of messages, via forwarding or replying to the author, each screen incarnation gives it a different status and may present it in a different form” (118).


There are consequences, however, as words may be quoted out of context accidentally or purposely, and previous threads, belonging either to other correspondents or the sender himself, may be freely altered or manipulated by the sender to strengthen an argument through falsification.  


Furthermore, in no other modes of communication is there such uncertainty that what the sender composes on his screen will necessarily appear the same on the screen of the recipient.  Line lengths, indentation, foreign characters, and attached files, in potentially failing to translate, be legible, or open, all lead toward a seemingly asymmetrical mode of communication (Crystal, 110).  Yet another informal characteristic of email is the pervasive use of ellipsis.  For example:


Found the book enjoyable, gave it to Joe.

Just a small reminder about tomorrow’s meeting.


Notice how the words “I” and “This is…” are easily omitted from the sentences.  Conforming neither to standard writing practices nor interpersonal speech, this feature of email language most closely resembles the telegram or the “cablese” jargon of cablegrams (Baron, 257). 





It seems apparent that CMC, and email use in particular, draws from both oral and written forms of communication while retaining a distinct quality unachievable by any other language transaction.  The electronic medium enables email to continually evolve as a hybrid between other available communicative modes, incessantly adapting to the demands and desires of those who use it.  As Linguist Naomi Baron stresses, “email is clearly a language in flux” (Baron, 252).  By attempting to closely follow this flux and evolution of the medium, critical studies on CMC will continue to inform how the language of email reflects the needs of communication in an increasingly technocratic global community.



Works Cited


Baron, Naomi. Alphabet to Email. London: Routledge, 2000.


Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.


Crystal, David. Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.


Danet, Brenda. Cyberplay: Communicating Online. Oxford: Berg, 2001.


Harrison, Sandra. “Maintaining the Virtual Community: use of politeness strategies in an email discussion group” Words on Web: Computer Mediated Communication eds. Lyn Pemberton and Simon Shurville. Exeter: Intellect, 2000.


Yates, Simeon J. “Oral and Written Linguistic Aspects of Computer Conferencing” Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives.  ed. Susan C. Herring. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1996.