Saturday, February 7, 2009

mail vs. email

I was struck the other day by the difference in both the noun and verb forms for "mail" vs. "email". First, let's talk about the nouns. Mail is strictly a mass noun: we say I got some mail, not *I got a mail. Email, on the other hand, is different in two ways: (1) it's generally a count noun, but (2) not strictly so. While it's more common to say I got an email (1,390,000 ghits), we can also say I got email or I got some email (I'm not putting a ghit # for these because it would take forever to tease out, in the former, non-native speakers leaving out the article, and, in the latter, referential as opposed to partitive some). Email is a thing that you can send: I sent him an email. Mail seems less so. To me, I sent him mail implies that perhaps a roommate that moved out continued receiving mail at my house, and so I forwarded it to him. Less likely to me is the reading that I sent him something by mail.

Now on to the verbs. For mail the primary object is the thing being sent, not the sender: I mailed him a letter, I mailed a letter, ??I mailed him (meaning I sent something to him). If I say I mailed him it sounds more like I put him in a box and sent him something than that I sent him a package. Email is the reverse: the primary object is the receiver of the email, not the message itself. I emailed him an article is fine, as is plain I emailed him, whereas ?I emailed an article is grammatically fine but pragmatically odd: who did you send it to? (Note: I really like using whom, not because I like to be pretentious, but because it's part of my native grammar, but "to whom did you send it" sounds just too stilted for me to utter it in public.)

Mail and email also seem to differ with regards to telicity. At least for me, "I'm emailing him right now" indicates that you are in the actual process of emailing, i.e., the process of emailing someone consists not only of hitting send, but the writing of the message which leads up to that point. It is one of Vendler's accomplishments, whereby an action consists of some activity leading up to some culmination point. "I'm mailing a letter to him right now", on the other hand, seems to only admit the possibility that you are about to mail the letter. Mail seems to be one of Vendler's achievements: a singular event with no activity leading up to it. You can't be said to be literally in the process of mailing a letter. Either you haven't mailed it yet or you have.


Uri said...

interesting. any hypotheses to account for the differences?

Claire said...

Here in Switzerland among non-native English speakers, the noun "mail" substitutes for "email" all the time. I think this is because in German, "Mail" refers to English "mail" and "email". It always sounds ungrammatical to say "I sent a mail" [meaning email], and your post clarifies why!

Wordacious said...

Speaking of mail and email, I posted recently on my linguistics blog about the naming of different types of mail systems.

By the way, I just found your blog and I love it. I look forward to reading more of it in the future.