Monday, 10 October 2011

Using 'E'

 "Tell me - you weren't thinking of using language incorrectly, were you? It makes me angry..."
[Image by ilco]

E-book, e-Book, EBook, ebook, e-book, E-Book, eBook, Ebook? Many words have the letter 'e' prefixed nowadays, denoting 'electronic', but there seems to be confusion about the standard way of dealing with that letter. In the last couple of weeks one of the academic mailing lists I subscribe to, LIS-E-RESOURCES, had a question about the correct way to write e-book. I responded with a link to a post on this subject I wrote when I was an e-learning technologist working for JISC RSC Wales. However, it seemed that more clarification was needed. As such I decided to update my old post in order to clarify the underlying rules for using the prefix 'e' with other words, since we in the UK have no equivalent of L’Académie Française.



When you break it down, this question of grammar only has two elements. Whether to use a hyphen or not, and whether (if capitalisation is needed) to capitalise the first or second letter.

Hyphens

Over time two words become associated together, and eventually make a commitment, proudly and publicly joining themselves with a hyphen to prevent any ambiguity or confusion. Then, when everyone knows they are together, the hyphen tends to disappear. The coupling is established. So we now talk about handrails (not hand-rails), and overcoats (not over-coats).

So the existence of a hyphen generally depends on the level of establishment of a word. Hence over time ‘electronic mail’ became ‘e-mail’; for many it is now so well established that it is ‘email’, and is still pronounced correctly as ‘ee-mail’, never ‘eh-mail’, even though the hyphen is gone.

However, there is one case where the hyphen stays useful – when separating vowels, to prevent them becoming a diphthong or affecting the pronunciation (and possibly meaning) – such as e-assessment, e-economy, e-assignments. 'Eassessment' just looks wrong. So keeping the hyphen is always useful, but not necessary in every case.

Okay, that's established the fact that a term like e-book is simply a hyphenated compound noun where one of the words was truncated. That doesn't change the rules that govern capitalisation.

Capitalisation

A hyphenated compound noun like e-book is a standard hyphenated word. The rules of capitalisation don't suddenly become complicated. When a capital is needed (e.g. at the start of a sentence) you capitalise the first letter. When one isn't needed, you don't use a capital letter. This is the same as constructions such as ’single-minded’ – it is the ’s’ that is capitalised when a capital is needed, not the ‘m’.

So capitalising the first letter is standard English; capitalising the second letter is incorrect.

Why is that basic mistake so common then? When people write eBooks or eJournals they are using names like eBay as a template. This was seen in one of the emails I mentioned earlier where a respondent said: 

"That was why I wondered if it was better to go with eBook as I think it highlights the word more as an entity and also follows the iPhone, iPad model."

No! iPhone and the like are registered trademarks/brand names, and they change capitalisation (and mangle the language) as part of that - Camel Case shouldn't be used for standard nouns. It's a case of misapplying the rules for one thing onto another. In standard English, when a capital is needed, we don't make it the second letter of a word, it is always the first. Ignoring that basic rule doesn't look 'cool' - it looks ignorant and perpetuates a misunderstanding. If you have ever cringed at ‘Fone Warehouse’ or ‘Petz’ then I’m sure you will agree that commercial mis-spellings shouldn’t be a basis for language rules.

Conclusion

If the word with an e-prefix is a recent combination/contraction then use a hyphen, so e-book/E-book. If it is so established that the hyphen is no longer needed to aid pronunciation, then it can be dropped, hence ebook/Ebook. It would not be incorrect to leave the hyphen in though. When a capital is needed it is always the first letter that is capitalised.
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6 comments:

  1. Clear over-view, thanks. (I think that hyphen is correct.)

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  2. clear-overView? = One man's view (and let's not start on apostraphes!). "If it's recent..." What is recent? e-Books have been around for at least 12 years by my count. But then it took e-mail about 30 years to reach email. And for me, it should be e-Book at the beginning of a sentence because the 'e' in adjectival and the 'book' is the noun (and thus to be emphasised - it is a book first and foremost, which happens to be electronic in format). As Stephen Fry would point out, language, and usage, move with the times. Clarity is what is important: e-book can never be pronounced ehbook!
    Chris Armstrong

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  3. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comments.

    You're right that the duration before something becomes 'established' is debatable. I think we both agree though that the longer something has existed for, the more established it is.

    "it should be e-Book at the beginning of a sentence because the 'e' in adjectival and the 'book' is the noun"

    I have to disagree here: the first letter of a sentence is capitalised whether it is a noun, adjective, preposition, conjunction, or whatever. The part of speech is irrelevant to that rule. E.g. "The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter" [http://www.informatics.sussex.ac.uk/department/docs/punctuation/node27.html]

    "Clarity is what is important: e-book can never be pronounced ehbook!"
    You're right, the hyphen aids pronunciation. Also it is interesting that Welsh translations I receive from official translators always have hyphens, so e-lyfr (which for once IS pronounced as 'eh' at the start!)

    Thanks for reading, Karl

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  4. What about obooks? Some publishers make a distinction between ebooks and online books (obooks). Maybe online books haven't become obooks yet?

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  5. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for commenting. I hadn't come across that phrase before, but as a librarian I can see what distinction the publishers are getting at - presumably that e-books are for downloading to a device, and online books are not. However their terminology does nothing to simplify matters, since 'e-books' exist online too, and in many cases 'online books' can be downloaded (or at least parts can, depending on the digital restrictions placed on customers).

    There is no common use of o- as a prefix for online. If there was then it would need a hyphen since it is not established as a truncation. Referring to 'online books' is a clearer way of communicating the concept, and clarity is the most important part of communication.

    Thanks! Karl

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  6. You might be interested to know that I read a book about publishing from 2004 which had reference to "e.books". I had never ever seen this variation before! The author may be Australian, although I'm not 100% sure. (See 'Mixed media: feminist presses and publishing politics' by Simone Murray, p. 215.)

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