Monday, September 28, 2009

When William Safire quoted me on e-mail etiquette

William Safire died today. I'm bummed. I've been wanting to write him about how frequently subject / verb agreement is no longer honored. I hear it most often on NPR -- probably because I listen to a lot of NPR. You'll hear things like:
Each of the experts we talked to say xxxxxx.

The subject "each" would agree with "says". But people tend to match the noun closest to the verb. When President Obama announced the secret nuclear processing plant in Iran, he said:
But the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.

Wrong, Mr. President. "Are."

Sadly I'll never be able to ask Mr. Safire to complain about this in his On Language column.

But I was quoted by William Safire back in 1983. He'd asked his Lexicographic Irregulars to help him with the etiquette of salutations in this new-fangled thing called electronic mail. I'd written an experimental mail system that was in use at Michigan State University, so I wrote in with my thoughts on the matter. His article was pretty prescient. It's obvious Safire was new to e-mail; he didn't give an e-mail address for people to answer him. And of course it's witty.

Here's the resulting article with my quotes; the parts where he quotes me are in bold:

November 27, 1983

My Dear Computer Ahoy!

That was the word Alexander Graham Bell chose to be the salutation for his telephone calls. That nautical variant of Hey! did not catch on with landlubbers or phonelubbers; most telephonists experimenting with the new device preferred the more conversational Hello ; thus, Ahoy! became A.T. & T.'s first divestiture.

Today we are searching for a salutation that befits a new form of communication. Old- fashioned ''physical'' mail - letters that fold into envelopes, postcards that have to be schlepped on human backs, even messages written on those pink ''While you were out'' pads - is obsolescent. While you were out, the world changed.

Oh, the Postal Service will linger on for a few generations, and absolutely-positively overnight delivery services will arrive breathlessly before noon in offices for years, but they know that the handkerchief fluttering on the horizon belongs to the computerized waver of the future.
The new (why ''high''?) technology of transporting words and ideas has us in thrall; those who hang back, writing ''Dear Whoozit'' on paper, will soon be off the screens of the marketing geniuses who have fashioned the oxymoron ''personal computer.''

Because these machines are in the word-process of revolutionizing mail, language must adapt. We must remember who is in charge: Language comes first; the method of communication comes second. With that firmly understood, we can cave in gracefully to the demands of electronic mail.

This department, ear tuned to the diode dialect, has advertised to Lexicographic Irregulars (Word-Process Corps) for an electronic etiquette. When reaching out across the ether through interminable terminals, how do we sign on to the human recipient? How do ''hackers'' bid each other an affectionate adieu? How do the rest of us affix the stamp of our human identity on our electronic messages?

''Most electronic mail systems automatically provide some sort of heading for you,'' explains Richard Wiggins, a systems analyst at Michigan State University's computer lab. ''If I were to send a message to you over the mail system I wrote, it might begin like this:

7 Message from: Richard Wiggins (Date. Hour. Minute. Second.) Lines- 22 Seen.
Re: Your column on electronic etiquette. Mr. Safire: ''

That's brisk and businesslike, I suppose, but it makes me feel like a cipher, especially since the closing includes a ''prompt'' of reply/ ignore/delete/output telling me to reply to the current message, skip it and feel guilty, delete it from my mailbox, or to out my put, whatever that means.

''Thus, the message is surrounded by a system-supplied header at the beginning,'' writes Mr. Wiggins, ''and a system query at the end. Still, people often do choose to supply their own greetings and 'signatures.' In my example message above, I chose to include Mr. Safire: as a sort of salutation. The type of salutation varies from user to user. Some people begin messages with Hi there , and others may put in the word Greetings .''

Not Dear, My Dear, or Dearest , because electronic mail is - at least in its embryonic stage - less formal than a letter. It is more akin to an interoffice memo or a friendly telephone call, and you do not begin those with Dear unless you want to stimulate gossip at the water cooler.

(Date, hour: minute: second)/ From: Tom McSloy/ To: William Safire/ TL 554- 4062/ Z35TOM at IPODOS/ SAFIRE at NYTIMES/. Beneath that heading, duly printed out by a typist whom I take to be named Daisy Wheel, is this message: ''Bill, this is what a piece of electronic mail sent to you might look like if you were on I.B.M.'s internal telecommunications network, VNET. All the gobbledygook at the top merely identifies sender and receiver, date and time. In my imagination, you are userid 'SAFIRE' at node 'NYTIMES.' ''

We userids get all our mail at this node. ''Since this is in memo format,'' continues Mr. McSloy at I.B.M. in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., ''I don't use the Dear salutation; but I soften the opening line of most memos I write by using the receiver's first name. I use your first name, even though we have not met, because in I.B.M. everyone from the C.E.O. on down is called by his or her first name.'' (Presumably, if both boss and office boy are named ''Bill,'' some process exists to differentiate them.)

Some correspondents see the mail of the future unadorned by any humanizing frivolity: (Date, time) safire 5556666 NYT neibauer 70365,770 Saw EMAIL article. I don't see any problem. off (time). The author of that chilling missive, Alan Neibauer of Philadelphia, envisions a marriage proposal similarly addressed and concluding Happiest person in the world if you ***DATA CARRIER LOST***ALL PORTS BUSY.

Do computer manufacturers and software creators feel the need for social graces in messages? Evidently so; user-friendliness is the jargon for the way to take the hard, mechanical edge off communication between and among people and machines. ''I tend to say Hello ,'' writes Peter McWilliams, author of ''The Word Processing Book.'' Herbert Cooper of Queens Village, N.Y., goes further: ''I feel electronic mail should be treated just like 'analogue mail,' '' he writes, using a new retronym. ''I always start my messages Dear So-and-so and end them Love, Herb . If my message is short (two sentences or less), I may write something like So-and-So - The system is down. - Herb. I feel there is no reason to develop special rules for electronic mail. Love, Herb.''

Barry Fellman of Miami disagrees: ''Since electronic mail is different from the stuff we've had before, I don't see why we should stick with the old rules of etiquette. Electronic mail should open with a greetbyte and close with a goodbyte .'' That's only the beginning: ''Since the computer uses one byte of memory to represent an alphameric character, the only logical choice for the opening greetbyte is O . The closing goodbyte should be C . Such brief openings and closings,'' argues Mr. Fellman, ''will eliminate the needless typing of extraneous words and the inevitable headscratching that comes when you can't figure out how to address your boss or how to choose between best regards and electronically yours .''

All right, everybody, here's a chance to flame like mad was a message sent out over ''usenet'' by Ellen Walker at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, alerting users, or usenetters, to my search. He didn't give an electronic address to send opinions to, so you'll have to use (yech) U.S. mail.

Perusing all this old-fashioned mail about the newfangled mail, I can conclude:

(1) Dear will not make the transition from paper to screen. (Sorry, Herb.)
(2) Ahoy! is not a suitable substitute.
(3) Neglect of any personal salutation makes people feel uncomfortable, and a salutation will emerge.
(4) Hi there! will not do for a rising tycoon, though it may suffice for a kid breaking into our early-warning radar system.
(5) Hello is nice, especially if connected to a first name, but is probably too closely identified with telephone communication.
(6) The leading salutation at the moment is the use of a first name at the start of the body of the message, following the formal name at the top of the address. Wise parents will stop naming children Bill or Mary and will choose Ebenezer or Abigail, setting them apart from all the other potential recipients of their mail.
How to conclude? Thirty , writes the old newshand. Love , writes Herb. Off , snorts Neibauer. Nothing, writes the man from I.B.M.

My own preference: REPLY/IGNORE/DESTROY.