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A Matter of (Wired News) Style
by Tony Long

2:00 a.m. Oct. 23, 2000 PDT

Should e-mail be hyphenated, or not?

It's not a question that ranks with "Should we end world hunger?"
perhaps, but it's a more important issue than you may realize. Here at
Wired News, it's a dilemma that has vexed the editors for some time.
But no more.

Sharp-eyed readers of our service, particularly those who have been
with us for awhile, will notice some stylistic changes beginning with
today's post.

Foremost among them is the insertion of the hyphen into "e-mail." It's
a decision -- made for both practical and symbolic reasons -- that has
ruffled some feathers around here, and will no doubt ruffle a few out
there. But more on that later. First, let's consider the justification
for upsetting the ritual tranquility of your morning latté.

Change does not come easily to publications. Once a "house style" has
been established -- house style being those guidelines that ensure a
publication's editorial fidelity to language and typographical
presentation -- even a minor tweak demands sober reflection. This is
no time to be whimsical.

That's because style, although subtle, stamps a publication with its
own, well, style. The things that readers come to associate with a
publication -- the way it looks, for example -- are largely the result
of style decisions. That's why you mess with it at your own peril.

If The New York Times suddenly adopted a sans-serif typeface, began
writing pun headlines and dropped the courtesy titles from in front of
people's last names, would you still recognize it as the Times? (The
answer, for the purposes of this exercise, is "no.")

Typeface choice, demeanor in headlines, a carefully chosen
eccentricity ... these are all conscious style decisions. All lend the
Times its rather fussy, but undeniably authoritative, air. True, they
were set in stone years ago by editors long under the sod, but
succeeding generations of Times editors continue safeguarding them
because of what they mean to the paper and its identity.

Style has played an equally important role in defining who we are at
Wired News. But times change. They've certainly changed here.

When it first appeared in 1996, Wired News was an online adjunct of
Wired magazine, which saw itself as a herald of the coming digital
age. It existed -- and exists -- to proclaim the ultimate triumph of
technology, especially Internet-related technology. While the magazine
delighted in chronicling the cultural and intellectual implications of
the next "killer app," Wired News existed on a more temporal plane,
providing nuts-and-bolts coverage of business and technology news.

The mid-decade was high tide for the geeks, wonks and assorted
journalistic gearheads who sat at the feet of their guru, Wired
Digital founder Louis Rossetto, as he told them they were the vanguard
of the revolution.

Part of that revolution would involve the evolution of the language.
The jargon of the engineer and the programmer would become the hard
currency of everyday English, Rossetto said, and they believed.
Wired Style, Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age reflected
that belief. Part manifesto, part working style guide, Wired Style
attempted to impose a new language consciousness on the digerati, as
the Web-savvy smart set enjoyed calling themselves. It is a tribute to
their optimism that the book was published in hardcover.

The tone was irreverent and playful because the emerging digital
society would be irreverent and playful. But it was also in earnest
because as in any revolution, the language of the elite addressing the
proletariat is always earnest.

To the true believer, the assault on previously sacrosanct linguistic
rules and regs was simple evolution. It was suddenly OK to begin a
sentence with a lowercase letter. It was OK to eliminate all those
annoying little punctuation marks, like hyphens, which smothered
individual expression. It was OK to misuse words, to turn nouns like
"access" into verbs.

Nor did the casual, widespread use of e-mail help much.

Because of the democratic nature of e-mail (or, if you prefer, email),
all these oppressive stylistic conventions could be jettisoned as so
much anachronistic baggage. What counted now, according to webhead
John Seabrook, was to encourage writing that appeared to have been
"written on the spot, in one draft, immediately." It was no longer
necessary to know your semicolon, or your syntax, from a hole in the
ground.

At the same time, a new jargon appeared. English, being the most
flexible of languages, has always been receptive to the contributions
of jargon, words and phrases that derive from a certain field or
occupation. The sports world has seeded English with some of its most
colorful examples: "It came out of left field." "He's down for the
count." When it's alive like that, jargon gives the language a
wonderful vividness.

The jargon for the digital age, alas, doesn't come from the ballpark
or the ring. It comes from the engineering quad, the programmers'
warren and, perhaps worst of all, from the sales-and-marketing
department.

These are fingernails-on-the-blackboard words, real
shiver-up-the-spine stuff: "functionality," "implementation,"
"bleeding edge," "leverage," "next-generation," "monetize," "mission
critical." You can almost see the language curling into a fetal
position to await the deathblow. "Monetize," for crying out loud.

While not specific to the digital culture -- hack writing flourishes
everywhere -- the recent variant of this trend certainly owes its
existence to that culture, which both gave rise to the geek as a force
and fueled the Internet boom, which begat e-commerce, which begat the
need for constant shilling, which begat abominations like "monetize."


The editors of Wired Style didn't necessarily embrace this ethic in
total (the magazine can be terribly well written at times), but they
didn't try very hard to stop it, either.

"When it comes down to a choice between what's on the Web and what's
in Webster's," wrote Constance Hale, principal editor of Wired Style,
"we tend to go with the Web. Like new media, Wired Style is organic,
evolving and dynamic."

For the blink of an eye, Hale was riding the crest of a wave.
But one day, the digital revolution was over. The big media companies
wrested control of the Internet from the kids in the horned-rimmed
glasses. It was time to grow up. Even the magazine and website parted
company: Wired joined the Condé Nast stable, and Wired News was sold
to Lycos.

Meanwhile, the digerati retreated in the face of a relentless assault
by e-commerce (or else embraced it themselves). The multitudes had
arrived -- to surf, to shop, to inflict their bourgeois tastes on the
newest of the new media, much as they had done with television decades
earlier.

The Internet landscape as it exists in 2000 is a far different place
than it was in 1996. It is mainstream, and growing more so every day.
And while people still can't spell or punctuate correctly when they
dash off an e-mail (or anything else, for that matter), no editor
worth the name can justify looking on benignly while the English
language is butchered in the name of some tin-pot revolution,
regardless of its narcotic effect at the time.

Standards do matter. The principles of good English are always
relevant.

So, despite conventional wisdom that "new terms often start as two
words, then become hyphenated, and eventually end up as one word,"
Wired News now inserts a hyphen into e-mail (and every other e-word),
as God and Noah Webster intended. Call it striking a blow for the
majesty of the English language, assuming you can find anything
majestic in a word like "e-mail."

The decision to hyphenate e-mail becomes even easier when you consider
that "email" as a solid word certainly evolved because some programmer
was either too lazy or too ignorant to correctly insert the hyphen in
the first place.

Besides, the "e" means electronic, and a principal function of the
hyphen is to join two words to form a completely new word. In this
case, "electronic" and "mail." Ergo, e-mail.

Another important function of style, aside from giving a publication
its particular look and feel, is to help the reader through the story.
Simply put, clear writing -- that which you understand easily -- is
good. Writing that stops you cold, or forces you to go back and
re-read what you've just read, is bad. A lot of that rests with the
writer's skill, but style has a role to play, too.

With clarity in mind, we've made a number of other minor changes
intended to keep the prose moving. There's no point in enumerating
them here. Some may jump out at you. Most will probably go unnoticed.
But if we've made the right choices, you should be able to move at
flank speed and still come away with a good sense of what you've just
read.

These changes will result in some inconsistencies between our archived
material and stories going forward from this point. That's
unfortunate, but unavoidable. If you're going to make an omelet, etc.
etc.

So fret not, gentle reader. Style is not voice. The odd hyphen won't
change the kind of reportage or writing here that you have come to
expect and, we hope, appreciate.

Your e-feedback is always welcome.

Tony Long is copy chief of Wired News.

Related Wired Links:

Old Dictionary, New Medium
Aug. 27, 1999

Copyright  1994-2000 Wired Digital Inc. All rights reserved.





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