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Cheer up, it’s only a style change

At 3 a.m. EDT today, the Associated Press Stylebook dropped the hyphen from the word email. At the same time, smart phone became smartphone, cell phone became cellphone, and hand-held became handheld. Once again, language evolves to keep up with technology. Should we feel bad about this?

There’s always something unnerving about formal changes to language rules. American English doesn’t feel like something that requires constant updates, like HTML.

We writers act as local thought leaders for language. Friends ask us for writing advice, and we’re often asked to edit messages composed by non-writers. If you’ve ever invested any time telling someone to write e-mail instead of email, today’s change feels like a betrayal. It’s as if we were fighting on the wrong side.

(And the AP Stylebook, while influential, is by no means the last word on this. M-W still insists on hyphenating e-mail.)

So the style change is a good reminder that nobody owns the rules of language. The only thing we ask of dictionary and stylebook editors is that they study the culture and identify the prevailing, favored way of doing things. When common usage demands a change—in this case, a cultural shift caused people to start thinking email looks smarter and more natural than e-mail—no individual can stop it. There’s no person or committee that sets language rules. It’s crowdsourced.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, News & Journalism

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