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Back to computer-mediated communication

One of the most commonly studied registers in CMC has been that of electronic mail, or ‘email’. It is, in many ways, a register that is the most similar to regular writing: it is fairly asynchronous, static and “long-term in character”, and used more often for the sharing of factual information rather than socialization. Nevertheless, its unique combination of field (topic the medium is used for) and tenor (relationship between the medium's participants) combine to give it a fairly distinct register.*

All emails have a set space for a header or subject line. This line, as it is meant to be an indicator of the email’s main content, is unusually obeyant of H.P. Grice’s maxims of conversation. Messages that violate the maxims of Quality (e.g. spam emails with misleading subjects), Quantity (blank subject lines are frowned upon; lengthy subject lines are automatically truncated), and Manner are generally frowned upon by email users**. Despite (or perhaps because of) these restrictions, phrases which begin in subject lines can occasionally “spill over” onto the body of the message. For example, an email subject such as “here it is…” may begin the body of the message with the phrase, “…all in one piece.”

The body of the email is structured somewhat similarly to that of a pen-and-paper letter: greetings and farewells are common, and unusual word spellings (‘typos’) are relatively few compared to other CMC registers. However, the average email is fairly short--Crystal found an average of 10.9 lines in his personal correspondence--as is the average paragraph length of about 3.5 lines. As a result, punctuation usage is lower than in non-CMC writing, as it tends to be less necessary.

The electronic nature of email also enables the interesting practice of inline replying, a procedure, as Crystal says, “a little like adding notes at the beginning or end of a letter, or in the margins, and returning it to the sender—but […] both parties end up with a perfect copy of everything.” Such a task is fairly arduous and generally not worth the effort in real life, but its usage in email has lead to interwoven texts, with responses sprinkled in the middle of the original message. Unfortunately, the syntactic and semantic properties of such inline responses do not yet appear to have received significant study.

A similar note concerns the recent emergence of email clients like GMail, which store emails and responses in a threaded format, so that the participants can simply click on the part of the email conversation they wish to see, instead of hunting for it in their server or sending a progressively bulkier and more awkward email back and forth. This creates a more dialogic atmosphere than most emails, similar to some messaging systems explored at the conclusion of this paper, but at the expense of inline response.

Listservs

Listservs, groups of people who communicate by sending out mass emails to each other, exhibit a special case of email usage, and exhibit tendencies that seem to be worthy of a separate register. One particularly rigorous examination of listserv-style usage is conducted in Yates’ “Oral And Written Aspects Of Computer Conferencing,”*** particularly regarding the previously-discussed relation between CMC and traditional speech and textual registers.

Yates constructed a corpus of over 2 million words, comprised of various discussions on the CoSy database. Analyses of the type/token ratio (the ratio of unique lexical items to total lexical items) found the CMC corpus to more closely resemble writing than speech (CMC: .590 +/- .051; text: .624 +/- .084; speech: .395 +/- .051). Similar results were found when the lexical densities of all three corpora were compared. However, other corpora analyses provided more interesting data. For example, the rate of personal pronoun use in CMC was closer to the textual corpus than the speech corpus; however; the rate of each form of personal pronoun (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person) as a percentage of all pronoun usage showed a strong correlation between the listserv corpus and speech. These data provide useful foundations for judgments on the similarities of, not just listserv communications, but emails in general, to the textual and speech registers.

Structurally, listserv communications are similar to typical emails, but often have differences caused by the multi-personal nature of the discussion. Herring proposes one structure theoretically designed for all “electronic messages”, but which is based on the study of two listservs:

Whereas the bodies of email messages in general, as previously noted, are generally too disparate to fully categorize, the above is a reasonable beginning for a structural analysis of the listserv register.

*David Crystal notes that due to the variances in field and tenor (or, as he says, “the diversity of e-mail contexts”), defining a precise register for all linguistic aspects of email is a difficult to impossible task. For example, Waldvogel (2007) informs us that in workplaces with low morale, greetings and closings in work-based email are terse or nonexistent.

** Intriguingly, satisfying the maxim of Relevance seems to be a low priority, as long as the other three maxims are fulfilled; reusing the same subject line in a series of emails, even after the conversation has drastically shifted, is seen as acceptable and even common (Li Lan (2000), qtd. in Crystal).

*** Technically, this study was conducted on CoSy computer networking software, rather than through a specific email client. However, the structure of the software closely resembles that of a listserv (asynchronous communication, subject line, private readership); Yates notes that the only significant difference is that information on CoSy is centrally stored, which has little effect on the end-user but makes data collection significantly easier.

Sources:
Crystal, David. Language and the Internet: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Herring, Susan C., ed. Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1996.
Pemberton, Lyn and Shurville, Simon, eds. Words on the Web: Computer Mediated Communication. Exeter, England: Intellect Ltd, 2000.
Waldvogel, J. “Greetings and closings in workplace email.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12:2, article 6. 2007.

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