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:
Your contacts and messages from firstname.lastname@example.org 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. ]