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‘E-mail’ is uncool, and other language lessons for the digital age

As brands consider their digital marketing strategies, one thing they have to think about is the way they use language online. Proclaiming that “if technology is a pimp, our language is its favorite bitch,” panelists at SXSW on Sunday offered a few communication tips for brands online.

Don’t wait for style guides to catch up

According to Merriam-Webster, “email” should have a hyphen. But that doesn’t mean you should follow the rule. “Even if people don’t quite understand the rule, they’re still going to make a judgment,” said Gail Marie, content editor at ad agency McKinney.

“I don’t think at a digital agency we should be hyphenating ’email,’ no matter what the dictionary says,” Kristina Eastham, communications manager at digital ad agency Digitaria, said. Similarly, she suggested that using “Web site” instead of “website” can be a marker of uncoolness.


The new sign you’ve made it: You invented a word

“Historically, brands have gained marketing fame by bastardizing English,” Eastham said, mentioning examples like Apple’s “Think different,” the “Got Milk?” campaign and “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” Now, she said, the biggest sign of success is “if you can work a word into the English language based on your brand or technology” — Googling, friending, liking. “When somebody says ‘Instagram that,’ everybody knows what it means.”

Sean Carton, who teaches about digital communication at the University of Baltimore, noted that Facebook (s fb) has actually changed the definition of the word “friend.” “Ninety-nine percent of the people you’ve friended are not your friends in the traditional sense,” he said. “They’re just not your enemies.”

Some tech concepts still lack words. “I don’t know what to say when someone writes me an email to introduce me to someone I haven’t met,” Eastham said. “I hate saying, ‘Nice to ‘meet’ you.’ I think it sounds so tacky.”

Carton expressed the desire for a shorter way to say “WWW.” He’s heard someone try “triple dubs,” but perhaps not surprisingly, that hasn’t caught on.

What’s next: Text becomes visual

With the rise of visual forms of expression like Tumblr, Instagram, animated GIFs and Vine, brands have to learn to write short and differently (just when you thought you mastered 140 characters…) Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider said he’s seeing more and more emojis in reader comments on Twitter, and if Google Glass takes off we’ll see text overlaid on real life experiences.

(Editor’s note: The GigaOM Style Council endorses and enforces all the stances advocated by the panelists.)


Images sources: Mlkshk, someecards

7 Responses to “‘E-mail’ is uncool, and other language lessons for the digital age”

  1. Whether we like it or not, popular usage is what determines the makeup of a language. If people choose to write email without a hyphen then it will eventually go mainstream. Technology has been impacting English since the 1970s when computer terms started creeping into everyday language. As the specific technology dies, and it all does at some point, so do the associated words. The beauty of the English language is that, like the United States, it is flexible enough to adapt and incorporate influences from many different sources. People need to relax, it’s irritating sometimes, but it’s not life threatening. People who lived through the 1960s can probably grok that…

  2. I definitely think that there’s been a general acceptance of slacking off on proper English when it comes to “internet talk”, it just depends on where you’re using your “format”. As long as you’re not bringing your level of writing down to using the minimal amount of letters through abbreviations, then you’re probably fine. I definitely agree with your level of marketing success if you create a new word. There’s a great give and take with how you can write, but the key is to know your audience well enough that you can communicate to them and understand what they’re saying back. Its as simple as that.

  3. “embrace change that’s intelligent, but not just because all the kids are doin’ it”.
    I second that thought.

    Also, until the style police bang on my door I will continue to use e-mail.


  4. Interesting article; it makes me wonder about how social norms have changed as a result of technological advances. Like, it’s not acceptable to delete your tweets. That’s an interesting statement that opens up an entire realm of sociological questions for me.

  5. ridiculous. even the most brilliant of tech geniuses are not grammar experts. so now we should all write the way teenagers text. i believe good writers – you know, people who understand the inner workings of languages and are equipped to use them to full effect to convey the most complex or subtle ideas – should stand their ground.

    we should educate people, and i don’t mean in a condescending way. i mean that you should write, while simply, also beautifully, and just maybe your reader is going to get a kick out of learning how words are supposed to compose a good paragraph. Yes, words change, but also a word like “hour” retains the h from its radical that’s a few thousand years old. and that, my friend – the mechanics of language that the HR departments can only dream to begin to understand in their wildest bath salt-induced hallucinations, – that is fucking awesome.

    embrace change that’s intelligent, but not just because all the kids are doin’ it.