As they arrive

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The good folks over at Gmail have been busy lately, rolling out several new features of note over the past several weeks. I've recently used their new automatic message translation feature to render a hilarious translation into English of a Spanish message that my father recently sent, and I thought about blogging about that first until I even more recently had the opportunity to test their new mail and contact importing feature. You might think that this is less language-related for this blog, but think again. (And feel free to add your funny message translations in the comments — you know you want to.)

So here's what went down. My in-laws (here visiting the new baby) have been paying for an e-mail service (which shAll, out Of respect, remain nameLess) since the good ol' dial-up days, now at a not-so-insignificant cost on top of their broadband service. They had not yet made the decision to cancel this additional service because the accumulation of years of mail and contacts had made it hard, if only psychologically, to imagine how it could be done painlessly.

And then there was Gmail's new importing feature. We created a new Google account and followed the directions: clicked on Settings, clicked on the Accounts and Import (formally just Accounts) tab, clicked on the Import mail and contacts button, entered the relevant info, and boom! — the 200+ contacts imported almost instantaneously, and the ~900 messages imported within several hours. Amazing. But I'm not just singing the praises of Gmail and this new feature; what's worthy of mention here on Language Log was this little message letting us know that the import process was complete.

Click on the image to make it readable, but in case you're too distracted to do so, here's what it says, with the sentence of interest underlined:

Import complete!

Your contacts and messages from example@thing.foo have finished importing. New mail will be forwarded as they arrive.

"as they arrive"? For a little while there, I tried to convince myself that this was some irregular count plural usage of mail that I'm not familiar with, since mail to me is strictly a mass noun (with the regular plural mails limited to "ironic" usages, kinda like internets and bitches). E-mail, on the other hand, can be mass or count for me: "I got a ton of e-mail today" or "I got a ton of e-mails today" are both acceptable, though I have a preference for the former, mass usage, and of course the singular count usage "I got an e-mail from a friend today" is perfectly fine. But even if mail in this message is meant to be e-mail, referring to it anaphorically with plural they is bizarre. Was it meant to be (e-)mails? Or (more likely) ((e-)mail) messages? Hmm.

[ I'm filing this under the "singular they" category not because I think this has anything to do with that phenomenon, but because it seemed oddly appropriate anyway. Feel free to disagree. ]

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21 Comments »

  1. Will Keats-Osborn said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    This is a little off topic, but why is "bitches" an example of an ironic pluralization of a mass noun? "Bitch" is unequivocally a count noun, isn't it?

  2. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    For that matter, is 'mails' really restricted to ironic uses in some dialects?

    For me, "I got a ton of e-mails today" and "I got a ton of mails today" are interchangeable (assuming I'm sitting at a PC and not digging through a physical mailbox).

    Interestingly, internet used to be a non-proper count noun in some circles, before most people had heard of it them, e.g.:

    http://groups.google.com/group/fa.tcp-ip/browse_thread/thread/f865a2c5f57474ce/3972f39eb5344be8?q="internets"#3972f39eb5344be8

    "If you're doing packet switching thru internets, maybe that overhead is needed."

  3. Sili said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    I coulda used this a coupla years ago when I ought to have salvaged my uni mail.

    Non-native speaker, but I would certainly have gone for "as it arrives". Definitely not a count noun in my idiolect.

    On the other hand, a coupla years ago I mentioned that I needed to write my aunt, and people automatically assumed I meant email rather than putting pen to paper.

  4. John Cowan said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    The word internet is and doubtless always will be a count noun, like the word queen. But the Internet, like the Queen, is a specific named instance and as such not pluralizable. See this Wikipedia article for details.

  5. kay said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    In our family, there are still at least three AOL accounts still active, since the pay-days. But I long ago stopped paying for them – discontinued the billing/membership fees as soon as AOL said they would offer a free model. So, really, your in-laws could have hung onto those old AOL accounts, for free, with AOL's blessing, ages ago — all they had to do was ask for the billings to stop.

    I no longer check AOL, however. I now have Gmail go check the AOL server for me and display my AOL messages (if any; there aren't many coming in anymore on my old account) in my Gmail windows.

  6. HP said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    My guess is that this is an example of hypocorrection. The original draft most likely had some form of ". . . mails . . . they . . .". A reviewer must have pointed out that that mail is a mass noun, and "mails" was corrected to "mail," but the pronoun wasn't corrected to match.

    BTW, I should point out that the mails is a common enough term used to describe an entire postal delivery system (although perhaps not as common as it used to be — e.g.).

  7. Ryan said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    I have to echo the question about "bitches" being included with "ironic usages." It's standard in my vocabulary, as a college-age male from the west coast.

  8. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    I suspect that the irony in the use of the word "bitches" is not the plural form, but the use of the word itself. After all, what self-respecting person would use such a derogatory term non-ironically?

  9. Connor said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    This one's short but sweet. From Japanese into English (I know, it's like shooting fish in a barrel):

    The sentence is 明日、最後のクラスなので、前お貸しした傘を持ってきていただけますか, which should be translated as something like "Tomorrow is the last class, so can you please bring the umbrella that I lent you earlier?", but instead comes out as "Tomorrow, the last class so you can lend me some of your umbrella."

    Sure, you can have the handle and I'll keep the rest of it.

  10. Craig Russell said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    On the linked page (a Gmail blog) they give an example of the kind of message that Gmail can now translate:

    Salut!

    On est en train de préparer une randonnée du côté de Davos demain, ça te dirait de participer? N’oublie pas d’apporter un pique-nique !

    à demain j’espère,

    Hiking Buddy

    But they don't show what that would be translated to. So, just for fun, I put it into Google's translator (the same one used by this service) and got:

    Hi!

    It is preparing a hike near Davos tomorrow would you participate? Do not forget to bring a picnic!

    tomorrow I hope

    Hiking Buddy

    It's at least intelligible (which is more than one can say for computer translators a decade ago), but it misses a pretty important detail: that 'on' here means 'we', as in 'we are preparing a hike.'

    Other than that, the problem is that it just can't figure out how to render idiomatic French as idiomatic English (e.g. the sign-off should probably be something like 'hope to see you tomorrow'). I'm sure those fine details are much harder for a machine to accomplish than most people realize. The image GMail is presenting–of people who speak different languages being able to chat with each other and understand each other perfectly without even having to think about the fact that they're speaking different languages–is still some ways off.

  11. Craig Russell said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    And even though in most people's use "bitches" is probably ironic, it's not ironic because it's being used as if it were a count noun. It's not difficult to think of an un-ironic use as a count noun either:

    I've mated this purebred bloodhound with three bitches who have all produced fine litters.

  12. Eric Baković said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    @ Will Keats-Osborn (et al.) — the "kinda like" in my post was meant to cover the fact that bitch (and, following John Cowan's note, internet) are in fact count nouns, unlike mail. I shoulda clarified.

    Also: I didn't mean bitches in any of the senses that people seem to be referring to in the comments above. The "ironic" sense (and please note the scare quotes) that I'm thinking of is the one in which bitches can be used to reference any number of people, even just one, male or female, with no derogatory sense attached to it at all. "What's up, bitches?" is non-derogatory and can be said to one person, male or female; "What's up, bitch?" is derogatory, especially when said to a woman.

  13. Dan T. said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    In some circles, having "@aol.com" in your e-mail address has strong negative connotations regarding assessment of your probable intelligence level and computer-savviness.

  14. KCinDC said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

    Shouldn't that be "What up", rather than "What's up"?

  15. Nick Z said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    @ John Cowan. Surely the plural of the Internet is teh internets?

  16. Richard said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 5:15 am

    Also, what's with "…have finished importing"?

  17. Chris said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    In some contexts, emails is actually correct:

    "I just sent you a few emails about blah. They are short and you should blah with them."

  18. Fred said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    If e-mail is the mass noun, then a single unit would be an e-letter, no?

    As in: "I received 3 e-letters this morning."

  19. Maurice said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    RIchard,

    I haven't seen this use of import before, but it's quite a common type of development, e.g., The new version ships next month or This paper cuts easily. Not sure if this is the correct technical name for it, but I've known this since uni as a medio-passive.

  20. Richard said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Maurice

    I agree with your examples, but there still seems to me to be a difference between, say "the new version ships next month", "the new version has shipped", and "the new version has finished shipping". As you say, there is probably a technical term for it!

  21. Noetica said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    Email? Surely the plural is émaux.

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