What that ‘ish’ in work emails means, according to a linguist

“When we add a qualifier like ‘ish’ to our emails, we are giving ourselves the benefit of flexibility, potentially at the expense of the other person’s valuable time.”

“How about we talk at 4ish on the phone?” This is a simple question from a colleague that recently pulled me into a tailspin questioning scheduling, email language and the concept of time itself. As 4 p.m. rolled into 4:30 p.m., then stretched wider towards 5 p.m. without a callback, I had too much time to think. Lacking more information from my caller, I analyzed the caveat of “ish” more closely for clues.

If someone writes that they will call at 4ish, I have taken that to mean that they will call within 15 minutes of 4 p.m. and not much later. 4:30 p.m. is my personal cutoff for a timely response. In this case, “ish” ended up meaning not that day, and I eventually rescheduled the call to a later date.

But by then, I had received varying responses from people I talked to for advice on what kind of “ish” is acceptable in work contexts. I had a friend tell me that a blanket statement of “ish” is okay if you work in the same office as the person. When you know you can reach the person physically, it takes the pressure off of both parties to be precise. You know that they are welcome to come on over to your desk. I had one colleague tell me that “ish” only gives you a 10-minute window to respond. Another told me 15 minutes. One asked for the formal definition.

The wide range within the meaning of “ish” demonstrates how qualifiers in email language can lead to confusion for both parties. To clear the air, I talked with internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch to better understand the expectations within “ish,” and how employees can be more precise in their language.

What your ‘ish’ is communicating

When we add a qualifier like “ish” to our emails, we are giving ourselves the benefit of flexibility, potentially at the expense of the other person’s valuable time.

“Ish runs into similar problems as words like ‘about’ and ‘approximately.’ All of these — both their strength and weakness — is that they are poorly defined,” McCulloch said. “In some cases, they can provide plausible deniability. Well, I only said 4-ish.”

It can be useful for the person setting the time to talk. It can be frustrating and confusing to be the person on the other side. Personally, I am a poor multitasker. When I am waiting for an important call, I am in a state of involuntary idleness, useless at accomplishing anything else, worried that I will be roped into a call mid-chew, mid-thought, unprepared. I want the clarity of an exact time to be ready to chat.

But everyone has a different approach to time at work, and when you do not want to make a hard call, you can sidestep an exact answer with a soft “ish.” “Ish” vindicates everyone, letting everyone feel in control. The downside is that it can open the door too wide to what is possible.  

McCulloch said that “ish” can be “a reflection of different people’s attitudes towards life, and towards time management, and towards scheduling things.”

“ ‘Ish’ can give the illusion of precision while providing a fairly big umbrella for different types of timing,” she said.  

The language of email can be less of an exact science, more of an art of using the right statements to get your way. You can purposefully magnify or minimize the importance of your statements with strategic qualifiers. This is not just limited to a tacked-on “ish.”

“I think that a particularly ambiguous term is something like ‘many’ or ‘a few,’ ” McCulloch says. “ ‘Many customers have told us that they have this problem.’ How many is that really? Maybe that’s two people and you just think they are representative of a larger group of people.”

If you want a straightforward answer, you have to ask follow-up questions to clear up ambiguities. In my case, if I want to nail down a time to chat, I have to ask for it specifically when scheduling. That’s a lesson for me to take beyond my next email.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.