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In e-mail, there are many ways to say goodbye

In the emerging traditions of electronic mail, the proper way to say goodbye is still under construction.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 1999

Gone are the days of the verbose valediction, the long-lasting leave-taking, the near episcopal rhythms of letter writers such as the founding father Benjamin Rush writing to John Adams: "Adieu! My dear old friend, and believe me to be with unabated respect and affection, yours truly, Benjn: Rush."

It's the '90s. Time for "C-Ya L8R."

"The sign-off and signature are the electronic equivalent of bumper stickers or T-shirts," said Dr. Vinton Cerf, one of the creators of MCI mail and senior vice president at MCI Worldcom. "I find most tag lines as much fun or more fun than reading creative license plates. They're very compressed representations."

Electronically, there must be 50 ways to end your letter. An informal survey yielded the following collection of closings: Onward and upward, Good Buy! (when selling something), Keep on keepin' on, Thanks a metric ton, Mahalo and Aloha (in Hawaii), Cheers (among Anglophiles, with the Australian variant Chiz!), Tootles (from Gidget fans, though the word is derived from toodle-oo, supposedly a bastardization of a tout a l'heure, French for C U soon), Peace, Pax, Peace and chicken grease, and Peace, love and information (in the tech industry).

Such creative send-offs can be irksome, says Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners. "We're a little bit suffering from the early answering machine phenomenon, in which people said, "Ah, a format in which I can be cute and get my personality across,' " she said. "This is not your opportunity to make declarations. It's just a conventional way of signing off." For personal e-mail, it is best to sign an e-mail message the way you would sign a postcard, she said.

Acronyms are particularly popular electronic farewell devices, though senders run the risk of annoying the recipient with sign-offs that take more time to figure out than they would to spell out. Common and not-so-common TLA's (three-letter acronyms) include BFN (bye for now), TIA (thanks in advance or that is all, mimicking old public address systems) and FYB (follow your bliss, borrowed from the philosopher Joseph Campbell).

Longer alternatives include TTFN, for ta-ta for now, TTYS (talk to you soon), PDAR (please destroy after reading) and C-Ya (for see you). L8R and Latah are commonly used for "later" (variations: E you later and Type at ya later). L2+

P also has been spotted, for live long and prosper. Then there's g/g (got to go), and WB (write back) soon.

Cerf explained the popularity of such truncated endings. "You'll recall that abbreviations were very common in the days of Morse code and teletype exchanges," he said, "because things were very slow, so anything you could do to make for a terser representation was helpful."

Still, some writers stick with business-letter conventions such as "Sincerely yours" for their e-mail.

"I have two feelings about the people who still do those kinds of closings on e-mail," Martin said. "Oh, the poor, sweet dears, they still think it's a letter and they're still using the correct form of a letter." The other feeling is not quite as kindly: "Aha, they think they can get away without writing a letter in a formal situation. Well, they can't."

Some of the most creative ta-ta's emerge from close family bonds.

"My 12-year-old niece and I have developed our own little sign-offs," Karin Rex, owner of Computerease, a computer training and technical writing company in the Philadelphia suburbs, wrote via e-mail. "This started as a joke between us because she -- in all her 12-year-old techno-wizardry -- was always sending me messages with computer acronyms that I could not understand. So I started to make some up with her. One of our favorites was "EHLTB' (Elvis has left the building), which we would save as our last message."

Kelly Keydel, a Seattle financial analyst whose husband, Kurt, works on a fishing boat in Alaska, shares a special sign-off with him when he is at sea: FYI, which stands for "forever you and I."

Among people who see each other regularly, sign-offs tend to be shorter, if they appear at all.

"It's people you see every day, that you have the most contact with, that you have the least amount of sign-off for," said Gregory Ward, a linguistics professor at Northwestern University. "It's like in an office, you don't say "bye' or "see you later' or "take care,' because those close off the interaction much more than is appropriate."

"Best" and its cousins albest, all my very best, all bests and best of the best are, in general, highly regarded. Jack Jackson, who used to work at the UPI wire service, recalled: "We commonly ended notes with "bests' -- a shorthand for "best regards.' I also recall combining sign-offs, as in "chrs et rgds,' " he wrote via e-mail.

But Collin Earnst of the Boston office of IXL Inc., an Internet services company, thinks "best" is the worst. "When someone signs their e-mail "Best' it drives me nuts. Best what? They don't have time to write the second word? "Best regards?' "Best be going now?' " he said in an e-mail note.

E-mail sign-offs can be too friendly, sometimes inadvertently.

"One time I held the wrong key down instead of Command X, which would usually insert a signature," wrote Rachel Hernandez, a doctoral student at a molecular genetics lab at the University of Washington. "I held Shift X. There was a delay in the computer, so just as I pressed Send, the XXXX appeared after my name. I haven't heard from that scientist again."

Some e-mail correspondents prefer not to limit themselves to human conventions. When Sue Russell of Los Angeles sends e-mail to her friend Sandra Lamb of Denver, she signs off with "All the paws here are crossed for you," in deference to her cats.

"Sandy and I both freelance writers, so we give each other mutual support," Russell said. " "Keep your fingers crossed' metamorphosed to "Tell your cats to keep their paws crossed,' " Russell said, "the subtext being "I support everything you're struggling to do today.' "

There are also devotees of the foreign farewell, particularly ciao, or the Brazilian Portuguese version thereof, tchau.

"It's also common in Latin America (especially Argentina) to sign off with un beso . . . "a kiss,' " Allesandra deSantillana, who works for Nortel Networks' Caribbean and Latin America division, wrote via e-mail. "This surprised me at first when I received this from colleagues in Latin America (it felt too personal). In Brazil, abraos, or hugs, is a common sign-off I've seen."

Melissa Aaron, a high-school English teacher in Mercer Island, Wash., has been fond of bastardizing foreign languages. "For example, "hasta la bye-bye,' " she wrote. Cerf admits to having used "hasta banana."

If translations of foreign sign-offs catch on, one candidate might well become common in the harried world of e-mail correspondence. "A friend of mine uses a nice sign-off," wrote Pekka Silven, a Web master in Finland, in an e-mail message. In Finnish it is Ala soita minulle, alaka missaan nimessa tule kaymaan! A rough translation yields, "Don't call me and never ever come for a visit."

But perhaps the final word on final words should come from the pre-eminent cartoonist of the e-mail set. Scott Adams, who draws Dilbert, draws the line at sign-offs. "I just use my name," he wrote via e-mail. "The other options make me gag."

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