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October 1st, 2003

Different than or different from / dilatate? / plural e-mails

by Barbara Wallraff

Patricia Kornreich, of Penobscot, Maine, writes, “In a recent column of yours that discussed the correct spelling of ‘minuscule,’ I believe you used the word ‘than’ incorrectly. You wrote that ‘minuscule’ ‘entered English from Latin by a different route than “mini-” words.’ I was taught that ‘different from,’ rather than ‘different than,’ is correct. Am I still grammatically sharp?”

Thanks for noticing! I thought I might get mail about that. It’s true that some authorities prefer “different from” to “different than” no matter what. But other authorities—for instance, Bill Walsh, who is the business-desk copy chief at The Washington Post and the author of “Lapsing Into a Comma”—will tell you that when “different from” results in something awkward, “different than” is better. Consider “It entered English from Latin by a route different from that which ‘mini-’ words followed.” Is that an improvement? I also didn’t want to say that the route is different from “mini-” words.

Usually I’m in favor of “writing around” disputed constructions. This avoids distracting readers from the point at hand and reassures them that I really do know what I’m doing. But in this case, I racked my brains and couldn’t find any better way to say it.

Anna Miller, of Houston, Texas, writes, “As a third-year medical student, I am concerned about a word I hear often. Many professors, residents and other medical students use the word ‘dilatate’ instead of ‘dilate’—as in, ‘The left ventricle of his heart is very dilatated.’ I can’t find this word in a dictionary. Am I missing something? Or are they just making up words so that patients won’t understand what they are saying?”

“Dilatate” does mean the same thing as “dilate,” according to a physician I asked, according to MedicineNet.com and according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which labels the word “obsolete”). Of course, doctors need language that lets them communicate with one another clearly and accurately. But here there’s an exact equivalent that’s both more familiar and shorter. Why not use it? People often ridicule doctors for the jargon they use. More power to you if you insist on speaking plain English, especially in front of patients.

Phil Feidelseit, of Brattleboro, Vt., writes, “‘E-mail,’ ‘e-mails,’ ‘email,’ ‘emails’—I don’t much care whether there is a hyphen, but I do object to the pluralization. Whoever heard of someone receiving ‘two mails’? How can one condone receiving ‘two electronic mails’ or some number of ‘e-mails’?

A wonderful thing about English is that we all get to vote, as it were, about how words should be used. We cast our votes by speaking and writing. You aren’t alone in your view, but you’re definitely in the minority. “An e-mail” and “e-mails” are now standard, according to six major contemporary American dictionaries. Obviously, you needn’t use these forms if they annoy you. Many of us, though, are tired of saying “e-mail messages.” What’s more, I suspect it won’t be long before people start criticizing that expression as redundant.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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