One of the most noticeable features of e-mail communication is the unique vocabulary developed by its users. Something about the format of e-mail encourages users to convey their ideas with great speed, so much of this new vocabulary consists of abbreviations. By the time you finish writing "Laughing out loud" in reply to somebody's e-joke, you have probably stopped laughing. "LOL," on the other hand, succinctly records the mood of the moment and allows the writer to start typing his or her next thought. Other common abbreviations include BRB (be right back), SWAK (sealed with a kiss), TTYL (talk to you later), and g/g (got to go). For more abbreviations, see Susan Aschoff's and Tina Kelley's articles.

Some of the vocabulary used in e-mail is entirely pictorial; emoticons use the physical appearance of numbers, letters, and symbols in combination to express a concept or feeling. Almost everyone who uses e-mail has seen the ever-popular smiley face, :-). Other emoticons include
:-1smiling out of corner of mouth, and
:-Psticking tongue out of mouth.
For more examples of emoticons, see Susan Aschoff's article and James Marshall's Web page.

Another linguistical matter is the method of ending a communication; in e-mail this is known as the sign-off. Some people choose clever phrases such as C-Ya L8R while others simply use their name. Foreign phrases for goodbye are also popular, with the British "cheers" and the Italian "ciao" among the most common sign-offs. One would never begin a letter with the word, "Hello?" nor would one begin a phone conversation with the salutation, "Dear so-and-so." E-mail, in many ways, is an awkward combination of the two and people have reacted to the lack of standards with creativity and personal choice. Whether a single pairing of salutation and sign-off will eventually prevail as the preferred language remains to be seen. See Tina Kelley's article for more examples of e-mail sign-offs.

Lastly, e-mail appears to affect communication offline as well as online. College professors have noted that students are writing longer, less focused papers than in the past. Many suspect that the informal, flexible nature of e-mail composition is responsible for this trend. In the days before word processing, people finished their sentences mentally before committing them to paper with a pen. Now, some professors claim, the ease of typing and manipulating electronic text has resulted in less concern for concise and articulate writing. Read Wendy Leibowitz's article for more information.

Further Reading

Last modified: 15 December 1999
Questions or problems? Send e-mail to the Web Honcho.