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June 9, 2008 12:02 PM   Subscribe

The word "re" means "with regard to" according to Webster's Collegiate. As in "I spoke to you last week re the Smith/Yablonsky matter, and you said ...." Why do many people insert an unnecessary colon after this word, even when it's in the middle of a sentence? As in "I spoke to you last week re: the Smith/Yablonsky ...." Those extra colons really whack readability, especially when there's more than one.

I can appreciate inserting a colon in a heading, such as :

Re: Smith/Yablonsky matter, our file ABC123, your file 456XYZ

which is not really supposed to be read as a sentence. In this case, the "Re:" is synonymous with "Matter:" and the colon serves its normal purpose.

Occasionally I have to remove the colons from papers written by my staff and I'd like to have a good explanation to give them of why they should not use colons in that way. Thanks for your input.
posted by JimN2TAW to Writing & Language (47 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it's the default in e-mail programs, which is where I imagine most people see it most frequently.
posted by mdonley at 12:08 PM on June 9, 2008


I disagree with your assessment. I don't think I've ever seen re without the colon. It looks like a mistake to me--a word fragment or typo whereas re: makes it clear what the writer intended.
posted by dobbs at 12:09 PM on June 9, 2008 [8 favorites]


Seconding dobbs. Also, this very much pre-dates e-mail; if you took a typing class decades ago, the colon was very clearly required in the header of a typed letter.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:13 PM on June 9, 2008


thirding dobbs
posted by I, Credulous at 12:15 PM on June 9, 2008


Looks like you have your answer. People don't know it's a valid word on its own. Reminds me of that thing where people use "I" in object position and think they are doing the more proper thing.
posted by Listener at 12:17 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me jump back in here. We're not talking about the header of a typed letter; I was clear about that in the question.

The dictionary I consulted (of course you may be able to find something else) indicates "re" is a word.

Maybe Dobbs should clarify whether he's talking about the header of a typed letter. If so, we have no disagreement.

Do others of you think that "I spoke to you re the Smith matter..." looks weird? I'll certainly respect your input if so.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:21 PM on June 9, 2008


Ignoring whether "re" or "re:" is actually correct, if you want the style for your workplace to be just "re," tell them to treat it like the phrase "in regard to," which would look weird in a sentence if it were written "in regard to:" People will still do it the other way, but some will listen.

It's like any other style matter -- if you want it to be consistent, you set rules and hope most people follow them but also have someone make sure they are followed by being assigned to care about the style (as opposed to the creation) of the document.

They are called copy editors, and they are the Chosen People.
posted by Airhen at 12:22 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I mean, wouldn't it be weird if I wrote, "I spoke to you last week about: the Smith matter ..." Why would you need that extra colon after the word "re" and not after the word "about"?
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:23 PM on June 9, 2008


I've never seen re without the colon in any context.

Your sample sentence is a perfect example--it looks like a mistake. On first glance it looks to me like you left an apostrophe out of the word you're. Yes, the sentence then would make no sense but that was my first reading and then I had to stop to see what you meant. Then, I guessed that re meant re: and thought "Bugger didn't forget the apostrophe, he forgot the colon."
posted by dobbs at 12:25 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


The original legal term is In re, from the Latin (it's not an abbreviation of 'regard') and correct style for that would usually involve italics. In re in legal language has a specific meaning.

Why do people use 're:'? Because the most common occurrence is in email replies, imported from letter standfirsts, and the presumption is that it's directly transferrable to body text. And language being what it is, forms are used because they're used.

I'm not sure what your question's asking, though. Preferring 're' to 're:' is just quibbling the style of corporatese, and you can set whatever in-house style guide you want. (Your gaff, your rules.) If you want to justify your annoyance at 're:' to your staff, get them to use 'about' instead, or a suitable equivalent.
posted by holgate at 12:25 PM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


jim said "Why would you need that extra colon after the word "re" and not after the word "about"?"

from my view, "about" isn't an abbreviation of anything, whereas "re:" is...
posted by I, Credulous at 12:26 PM on June 9, 2008


"re" looks like a typo. "re:" looks like an abbreviation, which is basically what it is.
posted by malaprohibita at 12:26 PM on June 9, 2008


...and then I eat my words.
posted by I, Credulous at 12:27 PM on June 9, 2008


What mdonley said; I don't think most people often see the word other than in email or memo headers.

Here are the examples from the OED:

1707 HEARNE Collect. 17 May (O.H.S.) II. 14 Amused by Charlett's trick re Tacitus.
1926 in H. W. Fowler Mod. Eng. Usage 484/1 Dear Sir,{em}I am glad to see that you have taken a strong line re the Irish railway situation. Ibid. 484/2 Reference had been made in a former issue to some alleged statements of mine re the use of the military during the recent railway dispute.
1935 A. P. HERBERT What a Word! iii. 80 We herewith enclose receipt for your cheque £4 on a/c re return of commission re Mr. Brown's cancelled agreement re No 50 Box Street top flat.
1939 [see INCLUSIVITY].
1976 Time 27 Dec. 2/2 Re your article on legitimized gambling.. and specifically state lotteries: the inefficiency of revenue collection is horrendous and the odds for winning are unconscionable.
1977 Time 7 Feb. 1/3 Re my archaeological explorations in Syria: it is not true that ‘..the Italian archaeologists have been slow to publicise their discoveries’.
1979 Verbatim Summer 5/2 G. Bocca's observations re public signs.

Note that re does appear to be often used to begin a prefatory phrase ending in a colon ("Re my archaeological explorations in Syria:"). Perhaps this has added to the confusion.

Personally I tend to use "in re" rather than simply "re," in part because I think people are more likely to know that usage (but I could be entirely mistaken there).
posted by enn at 12:28 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


A couple of thoughts.

I've always read "re:" as short for "regarding"--am I unique?

If I were into dropping Latin into conversations (which isn't out of the question, since I was a classics major), I might occasionally say something like:

"I spoke to Jane today in re her new novel."

In that case in re, together is a Latin phrase meaning "on the matter" followed by what would in Latin be the genitive (possessive) case: "on the matter (or regarding the matter) of her new novel". The way to deal with non-Latin words in Latin is to simply not decline them by cases, so even though "her new novel" should be in the genitive following the phrase in re, in this case you just leave it as is. I believe this is also legal style, and court cases that don't have two parties (as in "X v. Y ") are sometimes denoted "in re X" ("on the matter of X").

So the question is whether the usage of "re" as described above is derived from that Latin usage. If it is, no colon necessary. If it's unrelated, maybe a colon is necessary. But my instinct is that it derives from a shorthand in business writing, so whatever the custom is historically in that context should be controlling.

Also, it seems pretty clear that the email (or 1970s secretary-typed letter) usage of "Re:" is a separate case from the in-sentence usage described in the question.

Another random point. A colon is one traditional way to indicate an abbreviation, especially one in which the word is not simply truncated. For instance, "Samuel" was once (think 19th century, I think) often abbreviated "Saml:".

On preview, what holgate said.
posted by rustcellar at 12:31 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


We herewith enclose receipt for your cheque £4 on a/c re return of commission re Mr. Brown's cancelled agreement re No 50 Box Street top flat.

re No
posted by three blind mice at 12:31 PM on June 9, 2008


I think your "I spoke to you re the Smith matter..." looks weird (without context, I'd assume a weird "you're" typo or something). That's probably because nobody uses it the way you assert it should be used. That doesn't mean you're wrong.

As others have mentioned, the header convention predates email, and is the most popular place "re" has actually been used. It stands to reason that those adopting it will follow this convention, even when they venture outside of header syntax. Perhaps they don't know that "re" is its own word and not an abbreviation (forced to consider it, we would all guess it has something to do with "regarding," right?), or perhaps they just never give this type of thing a second thought.

Anyway, if you're right, good luck on your crusade getting us all to use it correctly. You shouldn't be surprised about why it's used the way it's used, though. It's fairly obvious.
posted by aswego at 12:32 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have seen "re" used without the colon, in the middle of sentences. (Usually by people with higher-than-average writing skills and good edumacations.) I think the jumble of answers you're getting so far serve to answer your question: basically, people don't realize that using the colon is superfluous.
posted by statolith at 12:34 PM on June 9, 2008


Do others of you think that "I spoke to you re the Smith matter..." looks weird?

Yes. Because "re" is not commonly used in a sentence, except maybe in business situations by people who like to write stilted, formal memos (why couldn't you just use the more natural-sounding "when we talked about the Smith matter"?). So when you see it in your example letter, it stops you -- stops me, anyway. I'm looking at "you re" wondering if you left the apostrophe out of "you're", but then in doesn't make any sense at all. [As noted by aswego, on preview.] Put the colon there, and I get it.

By the way, in legal writing, "in re" is Latin meaning "in the matter (of)" and the accepted style is to write it without the colon.
posted by beagle at 12:35 PM on June 9, 2008


So the question is whether the usage of "re" as described above is derived from that Latin usage.

The OED does give the etymology as "Ablative of L. res thing, affair." But I imagine most contemporary users believe it to be an abbreviation for "regarding," which may also be a reason people want to add a colon.
posted by enn at 12:38 PM on June 9, 2008


"Re" is not an abbreviation.

Like holgate says, it's a derivative of the Latin term In re. Fowler's Modern Usage, 3rd Ed says that (after several examples very much along the lines of the OP's examples), "It will be observed that in each case re occurs in mid-sentence, where it is inappropriate. There can, however, be no objection to its use as an introductory preposition, which, with its following noun or noun phrase, announces the subject of the correspondence, memo, etc., that follows."

Thus, according to the official word of the primary Usage guide of the publishing industry is that "re" shouldn't be used in the middle of sentences at all, which is why both versions (with colon, or without) look wrong. I recommend in using "about" instead. You're only saving three keystrokes with "re."

But, again as holgate says, it's your corporatese, so you can tell the employees to do whatever the hell you want them to. Just don't be surprised if you use it in correspondence to someone outside your office and they look at you funny.
posted by Caduceus at 12:42 PM on June 9, 2008


2nding the suggestions to either use in re or to quit using "re" all together. The purpose of language is communication. If your reader has to pause mid-sentence to figure out what on earth this random pair of letters is doing there, you've just failed a little bit.
posted by toomuchpete at 12:42 PM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks to all of you for your input. Apparently it's customary and therefore OK to use the colon, even within a sentence; and it's preferable to use a different word altogether; and there's also support for the point of view that the colon's unnecessary.

Dobbs pointed out correctly that I'm a "bugger," so I infer that he's a non-American anglophone. Maybe there are regional differences at work here.

Anyway, TTFN. Thanks again.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:45 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


My dictionary on re usage

USAGE It is often said that, strictly speaking, re should be used in headings and references, as in: Re: Harrison versus Ortiz, but not as a normal word meaning ‘regarding,’ as in | thanks for your letter re the job postings. However, the evidence suggests that re is now widely used in the second context in official and semiofficial contexts, and is now generally accepted. Be aware, however, that in certain formal contexts, if re is used in mid-sentence, some readers may regard it as business jargon or an inappropriate legalism. Often, | concerning or | about would be just as clear (and less likely to annoy).
posted by drezdn at 1:05 PM on June 9, 2008


Lot of wrong answers here. The poster is basically correct; re is a word on its own and not an abbreviation of anything, and it does not need a colon except in the separate context of a header (which the poster has already excluded from consideration). All you "I've never seen it that way" people are just proclaiming the limits of your reading; I've seen it many a time, and the OED citations show its wide usage, dating back at least 300 years.

As a practical matter, it's probably best to avoid its use, since so many people are unfamiliar with it and assume the problem is with the word rather than with them. But the poster is absolutely right that if the word is used outside a header, it should not have a colon.

according to the official word of the primary Usage guide of the publishing industry


Nonsense. I make my living editing for the publishing industry, and I have never once seen Fowler mentioned as something to consult, let alone given as a primary usage guide. It's way, way out of date; even the revisions basically put a fresh coat of paint on the amateur musings of good old Fowler, almost a century ago. Fowler was a literate and well-educated man, but he had his quirks, one of which was regarding this use of re as an "illiteracy," the same category in which he placed split infinitives and "write with personal object only (Though she had promised to write him soon)." If you find that last use illiterate, you will certainly want to condemn re as well, and I suggest the wearing of spats and bowler hats.
posted by languagehat at 1:17 PM on June 9, 2008 [9 favorites]


Apparently it's customary and therefore OK to use the colon, even within a sentence

Just to be clear: it may be "customary" among a certain group of people, but the kind of people who look down their noses at "bad grammar" and "illiterate usage" will also look down their noses at this, so if you're concerned about your writing looking literate, do not use the colon.
posted by languagehat at 1:19 PM on June 9, 2008


Dobbs pointed out correctly that I'm a "bugger," so I infer that he's a non-American anglophone. Maybe there are regional differences at work here.

For what it's worth, I'm a home-grown red-blooded American type and can't recall having seen a colonless "re" in any business or personal correspondence I've had, whereas I see the be-coloned "re:" on a regular basis mid-sentence. I doubt that dobbs' location (Canada, it looks like) is a major factor in observed casual "re:" usage, as far as that goes.
posted by cortex at 1:19 PM on June 9, 2008


Just another datapoint: I'm almost certain it's from in re, which means "in the matter of" or "concerning."

You occasionally see legal proceedings where there aren't two parties, like A v. B, but instead only one. When an attorney is brought before a court for a disbarment hearing, for instance, I believe it's captioned In re C.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 1:28 PM on June 9, 2008


Nonsense. I make my living editing for the publishing industry, and I have never once seen Fowler mentioned as something to consult, let alone given as a primary usage guide.

Oh. Alright. I've sent you a MeMail, since my questions about publishing don't really need to clutter this up anymore.
posted by Caduceus at 1:29 PM on June 9, 2008


If you find that last use illiterate, you will certainly want to condemn re as well, and I suggest the wearing of spats and bowler hats.

Or, alternatively, moving to an English-speaking country that doesn't customarily treat texts and recipients as grammatically indistinguishable. There are lots of them.

Re is office argot and Scrabble English, and the rules you choose to set for those are the ones that apply.
posted by holgate at 1:34 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


re is a word on its own and not an abbreviation of anything

its too latiny to qualify as an English word, though.

"Be aware, however, that in certain formal contexts, if re is used in mid-sentence, some readers [eg. me] may regard it as business jargon or an inappropriate legalism."
posted by tachikaze at 1:34 PM on June 9, 2008


Late to the party, but I can't for the life of me figure out why you wouldn't just insist that your staff spell out regarding and be done with it. We're hardly exchanging telegrams here, are we?
posted by willpie at 1:40 PM on June 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


I work in the legal profession and I see "re" used in sentences without colons all the time, particularly in time entries (e.g., "research re legislative history of blah blah statute; draft brief re motion to compel" etc.) and email. Here, it's used as shorthand for "regarding" and is used regularly in informal writing; I wouldn't see it in a brief, though.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:46 PM on June 9, 2008


It is not an abbreviation; the OED makes that plain. I agree with languagehat, and when I see "re:" in the middle of a draft sentence written by a colleague, I correct the error by recasting the sentence to avoid the word altogether. (I also agree that most people, nonsensically, do use the word with a colon. If it were an abbreviation, why wouldn't you use a period (in modern American usage anyway) rather than a colon?)
posted by Dave 9 at 1:48 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


For what my opinion is worth:

in re: fine if you're a lawyer. Otherwise, looks pompous.

...blah blah re blah blah...: Jargony. Probably widely understood, but people like me find it grating. Ok, I find it grating*, and if there are any other people like me, they will too. Your mileage may vary.

...blah blah re: blah blah...: Terrible. Do not use.

If you're trying to establish a house style here, and it seems like you are, why not just suggest that the words "about" and "regarding" are universally known and not so completely onerous to type that they can't be smoothly substituted for "re" in any of its forms?

I'm not trying to be all proscriptivist here, but I think the point of basic business communication is to efface the language used in favor of conveying information as smoothly as possible. It seems like a poor place to be stretching the boundaries of acceptable usage.

Of course I know that business writing is, in fact, where acceptable usage is stretched most freely and to the ugliest effect. Oh hell. Why bother. Let them write whatever illiterate crap they want, in the certain and secure knowledge that trying to prevent it won't make any difference, irregardless.

--

* "grating" in the sense that while I may continue to read, part of my brain will be thinking "Jesus Christ, you couldn't have expended the extra 0.004 calories to type "gardless" there and make your writing consist of actual words?" To me, it reads like one of two things: either a teeny little status marker, implying "I'm so damn important that it's not worth my time to write any better than this for you," which leaves me feeling vaguely pissed on, or merely like someone who doesn't read anything but email. Both fundamentally distract from whatever it was you were trying to say.
posted by rusty at 1:55 PM on June 9, 2008


I'm almost certain it's from in re, which means "in the matter of" or "concerning."

I suggest you read the thread more carefully.

I can't for the life of me figure out why you wouldn't just insist that your staff spell out
regarding and be done with it.

I suggest you read the thread more carefully.

Re is office argot and Scrabble English


I suggest you read the OED citations farther up in the thread. However, I admire your taking the trouble to de-italicize re in your quote; you inspired me to do the same in mine.
posted by languagehat at 1:56 PM on June 9, 2008


Thanks again to all of you. I'm glad I've provoked some controversy. You've given me plenty to go on for my purposes.
Bugger Jim
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:58 PM on June 9, 2008


I also never saw re without the colon until I moved to England. I see it quite frequently here in my day to day work. I also see Mr and Mrs used without periods. I've always assumed it was just one of the many UK/US differences.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:23 PM on June 9, 2008


Yes, it's unnecessary to place a colon after "Re". However, at least in the context of an email reply, Re: doesn't simply imply "Regarding".

Let's say you have an email with the subject "Birthday plans". Typically, you would see this in a reply:

Re: Birthday plans

This is basically short for:

Regarding the email entitled "Birthday plans"

Not:

Regarding Birthday plans

It's possible that the colon works as a short-hand in place of surrounding the title in quotation marks (much like the apostrophe is short-hand for whole words when using conjunctions). It's certainly simpler for a user (and for email software) to prefix a subject with "Re: " than it is to prefix the title AND suffix the title.

Just a thought on its possible origins, or possible reason for its use becoming so frequent and accepted. Obviously, my theory only works in this context, not when "re" simply replaces "regarding".
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 2:33 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I suggest you read the OED citations farther up in the thread.

I suggest you read the citations more carefully.

The earliest is from Hearne's Collections, i.e. a diary, thus shorthand. The others are either office argot or letters to the editor, which have their own formal niceties.
posted by holgate at 2:43 PM on June 9, 2008


TimeTravelSpeed has it, in my opinion. It's used with a colon because with the colon, it connotes a certain meaning that is commonly understood. Without the colon, it's obscure and confusing to the average reader. Of course, the average reader might not be "literate" or "well-educated" enough for your liking.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:54 PM on June 9, 2008


The others are either office argot or letters to the editor, which have their own formal niceties.

Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...

But you make a fair point. I do not deny that re comes primarily from certain restricted contexts, and I certainly agree with "the rules you choose to set for those are the ones that apply"; since the question is about colons, I point again to the fact that the OED cites uniformly lack colons, and repeat that those who care about niceties of usage will sneer at anyone who uses colons outside of headers.

It's used with a colon because with the colon, it connotes a certain meaning that is commonly understood. Without the colon, it's obscure and confusing to the average reader.


You seem to be confusing yourself with "the average reader." It is obscure and confusing to many readers with or without the colon, which is why I agree with those who suggest substituting another word. But if you insist on using re, see my previous paragraph re the colon.
posted by languagehat at 3:49 PM on June 9, 2008


The important question, of course, is: do you pronounce it "ree" as in reed or "re" as in red.

No, wait.

Another editor here. Languagehat has it, and to explain to your writers why they should not be using a colon you could tell them that "re" is a real word, and that they are not writing email headers.

I'm actually not in favour of substituting another word - if it encourages some readers to look it up and spread the word, so much the better.
posted by Skyanth at 6:56 AM on June 10, 2008


I just wanted to say that I am in the middle of Stranger in a Strange Land and at one point a character says, "...in re" no quotes, no nuthin.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:04 AM on June 10, 2008


I am a lawyer, and I would not write "in re" unless I was specifically referring to a legal matter that has been styled "in re". Latin terms can be useful (see e.g. inter alia), but when one is writing to clarify as opposed to obfuscate, latin words are counterproductive. (And really, using latin words to obfuscate is reprehensible.) Personally, I am partial to "in connection with" or "with respect to" or "concerning" for the many many times a lawyer must respond to several varied issues or concerns. It might be worth noting that cases styled "In re" usually have a colon after the "re". As I recall courts do the same with "In the Matter of:".
posted by Jezebella at 7:59 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


How odd. It seems perfectly normal to me to use 're' without a colon, in a sentence. Frecklefaerie sees the 'in re' in Stranger, but hey, was it Jubal Harshaw speaking? He's a lawyer.

As for saving a few keystrokes: When I was a boy in school, we were taught to use puntuation after the salutation in a letter ("Dear Sir,"). Latter, in college, I took a typing class, and they now taught no such punctuation. I demanded (yes, I did demand) an explanation, and was told that corporations saved big bucks by saving a keystroke on every letter typed. So using some longer word that conveys the same meaning is wasting money. Not good.
posted by Goofyy at 10:48 AM on June 11, 2008


I don't really understand why this is so important, unless your staff is communicating thusly in formal, outbound documents. If so, I would recommend that they use another word.

Your first question is essentially, "why do people spell this word with a colon at the end?"

My Answer:
Right or wrong, I have only previously seen "re:" with colon, never without. I even pronounce the "word" on occasion as "R-E" or "/ri/". From a descriptive linguistics standpoint, this is completely valid, as it pertains to the usage habits of a person or group without judging its "correctness."

Your second question is: "What can I tell my staff to get them to spell this word the way I want them to spell it?"

My Answer:
You are the boss or have some kind of decision-making power, and you have this preference. Make an executive decision. Linguistic conventions are by virtue arbitrary, and certainly nothing new.

See MLA
APA
AP
Turabian
Ad nauseum.

Just create your own company style manual and include "re" as the accepted orthography.
posted by mynameismandab at 1:35 PM on June 11, 2008


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