May 25th, 2005
Radical conservatives / e-mails or e-mail?
by Barbara Wallraff
Chris Philippo, of Troy, N.Y., writes: “I keep reading and hearing about ‘radical conservatives,’ ‘radical Republicans,’ ‘radical Islam’ and so forth. I had always thought extremism of the right was called ‘reactionary’ and extremism of the left ‘radical.’ Was I wrong in thinking that?”
Dear Chris: Well, Karl Marx would say you were right -- but these days he’s not an especially useful ally. “Reactionary” was originally a Marxist term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Since it was used mainly by leftists, it was uncomplimentary. Any conservatives who called themselves “reactionaries” either weren’t paying attention to nuance or meant it ironically -- the way, for instance, 20 or 30 years ago a man with old-fashioned manners might have cheerfully called himself a “male chauvinist.”
Helen Bronskill, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “When I pick up my mail from my mailbox, there may be several ‘letters.’ When I open my mailbox on my computer, there may be several ‘e-mails.’ What is the problem with the plural?”
Dear Helen: Some people continue to resist the plural “e-mails” because we don’t use the plural “mails” in the same way. (“There were several mails in my mailbox”? Uh, no.) But it’s not just our communication systems that evolve -- our language does too. Contemporary dictionaries are perfectly happy with “e-mails” as a plural. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, though, because few of them show you plural forms that are regular -- that is, plurals that are formed by adding an “s” to the end of the word. What’s more, neither do dictionaries come out and say that a word like plain old “mail” is rarely used in the plural. You’re expected to figure that out from the definitions given. For instance, one definition in the American Heritage Dictionary for “mail” is “materials, such as letters and packages, handled in a postal system” -- which is to say “mail” refers to all that stuff collectively. But a meaning given for “e-mail” is “a message or messages sent or received by [an electronic system]” -- which is to say “e-mail” can refer to them individually (“a message” is an e-mail, and two messages would be two e-mails) as well as collectively (“messages” are e-mail).
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.