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Compound Computer Terms

Are you confused about whether to write E-mail, e-mail, or email?

The following excerpt from The Gregg Reference Manual (reproduced with permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies) should clear things up a bit:


The free spirits who coin most computer terms typically feel no obligation to follow the standard rules for the treatment of compound words. Consider the term World Wide Web. According to ¶820b, worldwide should be a solid word, but actual usage―in this case, World Wide―must always take precedence over rules. Indeed, the rules merely represent an attempt to impose some order and consistency on a language that cheerfully persists in disorder and inconsistency.

The problem is especially severe in the treatment of compound words in computer terminology, where changes occur so rapidly that it is impossible to establish a style that one can confidently expect to last for several years. What's more, at any given time a particular word may be in a state of unsettled transition and appear in several ways―hyphenated, spaced, and solid. The general tendency is for hyphenated forms to give way to either spaced or solid forms and for the spaced forms to give way to solid forms.

Consider the word e-mail. Initially presented as electronic mail, the term evolved into E-mail, and conservative writers still write the word with a capital E. Writers on the cutting edge, who continually press for fewer hyphens and less capitalization, have already converted the term to email. Those currently occupying the middle ground treat the word as e-mail, but with the passage of time (two years? four years? six months?) email may become the standard form. (See ¶847g, note, below.)

Dictionaries typically show the more conservative spellings, because they cannot keep pace with the changes rapidly taking place in this field. Where, then, do you turn for up-to-date guidance? The best places to look are (1) the magazines and dictionaries devoted to computer and Internet technology and (2) the manuals and style guides published by industry insiders. If you are writing for a knowledgeable audience of computer users, you can choose the emerging style for the treatment of compound words. If, on the other hand, you are writing for readers who are not immersed in the field, you may find it safer to stay with the more conservative treatment of these words, because such readers will more easily grasp, say, file name than filename.

NOTE: (¶847g) The term e-mail can still be seen as E-mail (the original form of the word) and also as email (without the hyphen), but the hyphenated form is still the one most commonly used. In order to maintain a consistent style, it is better to retain the hyphen in e-mail until many of the other e words start to drop the hyphen as well.¹


So, according to The Gregg Reference Manual, it seems that there is no right or wrong answer here. How often does that happen in the world of grammar? Take advantage of this by using the style you're most comfortable with, but be consistent!

Next week we'll discuss compound computer terms in more detail. Watch your inbox for my next email!

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1. William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual, Tenth Edition, McGraw-Hill/Irwin, New York, 2005, pp. 245-246. Reproduced with permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies.