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March 10, 2002 - Language of Electronic Mail - 2002-03-08

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- the language of electronic mail.


"As e-mail is developing more and more users, it's also developing more and more styles. There's one style that says be brief, be spontaneous, don't edit anything you write."

RS: But be careful -- that style is not always appropriate, says linguistics professor Naomi Baron. She's head of the TESOL -- Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages -- program at American University in Washington.


"I receive all sorts of e-mails from people who are asking my help that say: 'Hi Naomi, how ya doing? Need help -- fast. Answer me now.' And I find this a little bit forward from people I've never met who are asking me to spend time doing research to help them out."

AA: But Naomi Baron says she gives the writers the benefit of the doubt when she gets pushy-sounding e-mails like that from people unfamiliar with American standards of decorum.

RS: After all, she says even a lot Americans are not sure what tone to use when sending an electronic message to someone other than a friend or loved one.


"E-mail is different from formal speech and from traditional formal writing, in that there really isn't anybody laying down the rules. What I would overwhelmingly recommend is that if you're introducing yourself to someone whom you would like to have hold you in high esteem, read what you write, edit it, be polite, go ahead and don't care about whether or not you're too formal. Say 'dear mister, doctor, so-and-so,' sign it 'sincerely so-and-so.'

AA: Now let's say you've just gotten an e-mail, how soon are you expected to reply?

RS: Linguistics professor Naomi Baron has an answer.


BARON: "Interestingly when people first started commonly using e-mail -- oh, about ten years ago -- you could have two or three days before anybody would feel it's inappropriate not to have responded. But absolutely people have the assumption now if they haven't heard back within a day, you're being rude."

RS: "So tell us something about what you see in your crystal ball about the future of e-mail."

BARON: "In my crystal ball I see the possibility of trouble ahead for the written English language. For reasons that have nothing to do with e-mail, spoken language is coming to look closer and closer to written language, which really means writing is becoming much more informal, casual. What e-mail is doing -- and instant messaging after that -- is making that informal speech yet more informal. But I do believe that as we see a lot of the good things that carefully edited written language can do being jeopardized, we'll stop and say no, that's not what we want to happen and we'll find there's certain things for which we use the telephone, certain things for which we use unedited e-mail, but there will also be a style of e-mail that is indistinguishable from more formal, traditional writing."

AA: And it is this kind of style that Naomi Baron would recommend for a situation like, say, writing to a professor you've never met, asking for help.

RS: I asked Naomi Baron if she saw a role for mail in the English as a foreign or second language classroom.


BARON: "Absolutely. We, for example, have many, many classrooms in the United States that are taking e-mail as a device for having students regularly send messages to their faculty members. So yes it is being used and I think will be a very productive part of practicing one's writing."

RS: "Finally, before you push 'send,' what would your recommendations be?"

BARON: "Take your hands off of your keyboard, and read. In fact, I strongly recommend reading every e-mail message not once but twice."

RS: "And would you recommend to read it out loud?"

BARON: "Actually I would. I find an enormous number of errors that I wouldn't have seen, but I hear."

RS: "That's what I tell my sons to do -- thank you! (laughter)"

AA: Naomi Baron of American University is author of the book "Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading."

RS: Now, speaking of evolution, this week Wordmaster launches a Web site! You can find most of our scripts from the last four years, along with recent audio files of our programs.

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