I am a big believer in rules. Rules bring order to what could otherwise be chaos. Rules set expectations. Rules guide human behavior (and sometimes non-human behavior). Hell, rules govern how machines compute, perform tasks, and analyze data.
We need rules.
Admittedly, my rebellious side often suggests to me that some rules should be broken. Take the stop sign in front of my house, for example. I often wallow slowly (in both directions, of course), knowing the rule is to stop, even when my wife reminds me that the sign says a stop and I mumble, “Stop signs are only suggestions for” those of us who drive carefully. ”Okay, that’s a bad example, but you get what I’m talking about.
And then some of the rules are pretty fuzzy. Take cheesecake. At home, it’s a rule that nothing goes into the cheesecake except the necessary ingredients. The blissful creaminess, the sweet but sour impression it leaves behind – a good cheesecake doesn’t need anything else. I love strawberries, but it’s a rule not to mess cheesecake (or other toppings or mixes) with them. Those who do this made something other than a cheesecake.
So when my friend and colleague Doug Austin out eDiscovery Today wrote this week The fact that the words “electronic discovery” should be written in short form “eDiscovery” made me think – there has to be a rule for this literal combination of two words. Doug is not the first to suggest this notation. For years it has also been discussed whether the “e” should be separated or not, whether the E should be capitalized or even omitted entirely. It is a fair and reasonable debate. And it’s high up in the pantheon of e-discovery stories with the Tiff versus native productions debate (and we all know who wins that debate, right?).
So in the spirit of trying to solve the industry’s most pressing problems, I set out to solve that problem once and for all. The question, my friends, is e- or not e-.
(Note: there is a minor minor issue with capitalizing E or D, but that’s pretty straightforward).
Since neither Congress nor any other legislative body in the world has, or is likely to have, influence, I have turned to the Chicago Manual of Style. For many, this manual is the Bible for those who work with words. Since it was first published 110 years ago, it has been the indispensable reference work for authors, editors, proofreaders, copywriters and publishers. Since the twelfth edition in 1969, more than a million copies of the manual have been sold. The sixteenth edition was published in 2010 and remains my guide to writing style. There are other manuals, of course, and the rules are very similar, but I think The University of Chicago Press’s is the most widely used.
So let’s dig in. First the simple things.
There should be no question that it is correct to capitalize the “E” when starting a sentence with the word “e-discovery”. Not even the most seditious linguists and mutinous grammarians could disagree. The only possible exception are proper names or brand names.
Rule # 2
Regarding the capital “D” – it is never correct to capitalize a letter in the middle of a word unless that word is a proper name or a private label (e.g. eBay or iPhone).
Based on our first two rules, Doug and eDiscovery Today are clearly given a pass to use the lowercase e and the uppercase D as that is the real name of his blog, his brand. But unfortunately, for the rest of us, based on the rules, we have to start sentences with “e-discovery”, and worse, “eDiscovery,” as sexy as it may seem – I’m sorry, it’s just not correct based on the rules.
Next we need to deal with the slightly more complicated topic – the hyphen. Many of the rules regarding usage and punctuation depend on whether words appear in the dictionary. The most common reference is the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. But while both “electronic” and “Discovery” appear in the dictionary, “E-Discovery” does not appear. If e-discovery were in the dictionary it could solve the problem as people would just look it up and use this form. Since this is not the case, let’s turn to the rules for putting words together.
If we examine it for parts of speech, we can see that “electronic” is an adjective describing the noun “discovery” or adding a grammatical attribute or meaning. In the Chicago Manual of Style, the rule is to separate before but not after the noun. However, this rule applies to the use of both full words. What happens if the composition is one of the so-called “E-words”, which clearly seems to apply here. Think e-commerce, e-book. The best example in the Chicago Manual of Style is “electronic mail” or email. The manual says that we should write e-mails (with a hyphen). I don’t know how or why now, but for the past few years we’ve all been writing “email” (without a hyphen). But the correct form of putting two words together in the “e” world we all live in now is hyphenation (i.e., email).
We’ve all been doing that for many years, as far as I can remember. Somehow we got away from the hyphen. The Associated Press stopped hyphenation of emails in 2011; the New York Times stopped in 2013 (“precisely because of popular demand”). What has changed? Well the only thing I could find actually proves one of the above premises – once a word is published in a dictionary, that usage becomes the norm. And guess what happened between 2010 and 2013? Dictionaries began to publish the word “email” without the hyphen.
I also found a notice on the Oxford Dictionaries website suggesting that “email” (no hyphen) was simply becoming the most common usage. But even the people of Oxford say, “When in doubt, separate.”
What happened to email seems to have happened to many words. We just combined them and made a new word without a hyphen and the new, popular usage took over. But once they’re in a dictionary, it seems more official, doesn’t it?
But I digress. Let’s come back to the penultimate question about e-discovery – the hyphen.
The hyphenation rules in the English language are very different, if not contradicting itself. In many contexts, it probably doesn’t matter that much, and putting words together can be even more complicated. What does the Chicago Manual of Style say?
Rule # 3
The Chicago Manual of Style clearly recommends the use of a hyphen when compounding two words. The reasoning is certainly a little ambiguous, but it is clear from the Style Guide that their Hyphenation Guide for compound words and prefixed words requires hyphenation for compound words preceded by an “e”, except in cases of proper names.
There you have it – the “rules” say “e-discovery” (with a hyphen) is the right use.
See, rules aside, the key to all of these grammar and punctuation marks is clarity. It needs to be clear to the reader what you are writing about. I don’t think anyone will misunderstand what I mean whether I am writing e-discovery or e-discovery, so personally I think it is okay to use both.
But for the sake of rules, I’ll keep writing e-discovery until the word is added to the dictionary.
Oh oh you know what I just discovered that Merriam-Webster already has. Anyone want to guess how they spell it? Listen here.
In August 2009, in response to a debate that was raging through the pages of Law Technology News (the predecessor of Legaltech News), the famous LTN editor Monica Bay published an edict that resonated with me then as now: “No, which remains. “
I’m with Monika. Who wants to argue with that?
Note: This article was written with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor, a touch of truth, and a touch of sincerity