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August 1st, 2007

Can e-mail state or read? / taken back

by Barbara Wallraff

Paul Roemer, of Philadelphia, writes: “Which, if any, are correct: ‘the e-mail stated,’ ‘the e-mail read,’ ‘the e-mail indicated,’ ‘the e-mail wrote’? Since an inanimate object can’t read, write or speak, how does one attribute something to the text of an e-mail -- or a letter or a sign?”

Dear Paul: Don’t start thinking that way, or you’ll have to stop replying to e-mail with “Good to hear from you.” You won’t be able to write, “Listen up!” When some commission somewhere publishes a lengthy report about a problem but takes no steps to solve it, you won’t be able to complain, “All talk, no action.”

It’s true that “the e-mail wrote” is no good. Obviously, the author did the writing. “Read,” though, is one of many verbs that cut two ways -- like “smell” in “I smell something strange” and “The room smells strange,” or “feel” in “I feel good” and “That feels good! Do it again.”

As for “stated” and “indicated,” they’re not wrong in your examples. They are equivalent to “said” -- which is very widely used with inanimate subjects, as in “The sign said ...” But that brings me to a final point: Language authorities tend to suggest that you use plain old “said” rather than any of its equivalents except where you feel the need to add a hint of additional meaning. For instance, in “‘What a good idea,’ he joked,” “joked” serves a purpose, making clear he didn’t mean it. But in “He stated that it was a good idea” or “The e-mail indicated he liked the idea,” the verbs add nothing except extra syllables.

Erika Blake, of Rensselaer, N.Y., writes: “‘Taken back’ versus ‘taken aback.’ Lately I’ve been hearing people say things like ‘I was taken back by his audacity.’ To me, ‘taken back’ means that the person was returned to a place he or she had previously been or was reminded of something that happened in the past. If someone is ‘taken aback’ by something, he or she was surprised or disconcerted by it. Can ‘taken back’ refer to being surprised or disconcerted?”

Dear Erika: No. At first I wondered if you were mishearing -- after all, “taken aback” and “taken back” sound a lot alike. But when I looked into it in online news sources, I found that the misuse of “taken back” is common in writing as well.

Originally, “aback” and “back” were just versions of the same word. “Back” gradually won out in nearly all senses and phrases. In the 1600s through 1800s, however, when sailing ships were common, “taken aback” was a nautical term. It referred to the dangerous situation in which wind blows on the front of the ship’s sails, causing the ship to stop dead or go backward. The phrase became a figure of speech used to refer to people when they were, as you say, surprised or disconcerted. Because it was already set as a phrase, with a more specific meaning than “take back,” that “aback” remained with us.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives other uses of “aback,” such as “to hold aback” and “to stand aback from,” and doesn’t call them obsolete. But those online news sources of mine tell me that the only way “aback” is actually used these days is with “take”or “taken.”

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

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