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As the heading suggests, I'm wondering whether there is a formal word or phrase for "snail mail", that can be used in contexts where we want to make clear that we're not talking about emails. For instance:

All communication should be conducted in writing, via XX or email

where XX stands for a more formal word for "snail mail".

Edit: I realise from all your answers and comments that I should have added the geographical context as well – primarily I need it for a British/European context, but I'm interested in the regional differences too, so I'm very grateful for all perspectives :)

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  • "postal mail" or just "post" Oct 2 at 17:20
  • via mail or email. via the post or email.
    – Lambie
    Oct 2 at 21:13
  • It is more formal, but clearer, to use "through the post" than just "post". So you might say "contact me by email or through the post".
    – Peter
    Oct 3 at 7:08
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According to the reasons I outline in this answer, the best options seem to be:

Most natural British English: email or post.
Most formal British English: postal mail or email.
Best for germanic language natives: email or post.
Best for British and trans-European English: email or postal mail.

Why not "mail or email"?

"Mail or email" is not a good solution in my opinion (for British and European English speakers).

In British English, which the OP is asking about, "mail" is already weird. "Post" is the word that we use in everyday speech to specify postal mail.

For Europeans who have learnt English, "mail" would be very easily confused for "email". Not just because they are so similar morphologically, which makes it hard to distinguish them in the first place, but also because of their native languages: romance languages seem to slowly be giving up on distinguishing between "mail" and "email" (even more so than English); and "post" is a germanic word, so German natives, Dutch natives, etc., will find anything containing "post" easier to notice and understand than when it doesn't appear.

"Mail or email" is also weird, and that's for English in general — not just British English! In these kinds of contrast-patterns, readers expect like-nouns (in this case "mail") to have contrasting qualifiers. Perhaps this idiomatic pattern has arisen from generations of writers intentionally disambiguating the two sides. "Would you prefer to be seated in a carriage or a club carriage?" is very weird. Even though "carriage" can normally be used alone for exactly the same meaning, in juxtaposing cases like these it's expected to add the qualifier explicitly: "would you prefer to be seated in a normal carriage or a club carriage?"

To betray this expectation is a poetic technique, so it's not necessarily incorrect to say "hey, would you rather sit in a chair... or a deluxe ACME-pro gaming chair?" But it is a stylistic decision that has to be intentionally made, and in "mail or email"... are you sure your readers will appreciate the poetical surprise? Or even be reading slowly enough to notice "postal mail" is an option in the first place?

Any solution which uses a "post" qualifier to contrast from the "e-" qualifier in "email" would suit far better than just "mail", so e.g. "postal mail and email" is a great solution.

"email or X" vs "X or email"

Because of the way that we are naturally inclined to organise stress in English speech, "email or post" and "email or postal mail" sound more fluent than "post or email" and "postal mail or email".

"Email or post" is pronounced with a dactylic pattern: email or post. This rolls off the tongue, sounding rhythmic, casual, and non-agressive. In everyday colloquial speech, we'd likely say this.

"Post or email" however is harder to pronounce. If pronounced trochaically, "post or email", it sounds curt. Any other pronunciation, for example "post or email" (the most likely one imo), reassigns syllabic stress, either sounding muddier (less well-enunciated) and/or violating the standard stress pattern of the words, which also deteriorates clarity. By the way, the trochaic pronunciation "post or email" may be desirable, especially in a formal setting: somewhat stilted, carefully-enunciated speech is a common sight in formal settings. This might be because it dispels laziness and casualness.

Similarly, "email or postal mail" is naturally a dactylic dimeter ("email or postal mail"), that has the same positive connotations as before. It also agrees with the isolated pronunciation of "postal mail", which is a dactyl ("postal mail"), because "postal mail" is one conceptual unit so outside of metrical context it would tend to be pronounced as a whole. In some contexts, "mail" can be a stressed syllable ("the postal mail was slow today" — very satisfying iambic tetrameter), but in your case it's at the end of a sentence. "Postal mail or email" has the same rhythmic consequences as "post or email".

Whether or not anyone will notice (let alone care) outside of poetry is another question; this metrical effect could reasonably be considered negligible, especially in writing, especially in written communications.


So, my favourite solution to your question would be the totally unambiguous at-a-glance "email or post" that also uses the idiomatic most common words and ordering (for British English). It's the natural British English phrase.

According to a French friend who has learnt English in France (and online; admittedly, the internet is quite Am.Eng.-saturated, but learning through online immersion is more than common enough to matter these days), "post" is weird, so depending on your audience you may prefer to use the totally-specified "postal mail". "Postal mail" also sounds even more formal than just "post".

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    This is such a good answer! And I totally agree with what you say about Europeans learning English – which is also true of Europeans borrowing English words: in Swedish, for instance, we use the word "mail" or "mejl" for 'email' (that is, that's the "Swedish" word meaning 'email'), and I'm pretty sure most Swedes would use the English word "mail" to mean 'email' when they speak English, so... Excellent points you've made here :) And great summary at the end!
    – Helen
    Oct 2 at 21:11
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    I agree with @Helen. I would upvote this twice if I could.
    – TonyK
    Oct 2 at 21:44
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    @Helen thank you for your kind comment. I missed it while writing a large formatting edit. My edit may have overcomplicated the answer — the previous version (that you accepted) may have been much clearer. Please let me know if you think I should revert the most recent edit, happy to do so if it's no longer as good an answer for the question you had. Oct 2 at 21:53
  • 1
    You might also consider "electronic or postal mail".
    – epl
    Oct 2 at 22:23
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    @epl Nice out-of-the-box suggestion. That's extremely formal, and could suit some very formal/principled environments. It may be considered archaic or a little uppity, depending on where you're using it. Oct 2 at 22:29
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I think "postal mail" is more formal than "snail mail" and is quite clear. I would favor using it in the sort of situation you describe.

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    David, I would say "postal mail" is a bit awkward.
    – Fattie
    Sep 30 at 1:25
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    To me, in the US, it would be mail or US mail. To make clear the distinction from email, I think I too would use postal mail. Sep 30 at 2:08
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    @Fattie perhaps. I have in fact used it many times when i wanted to make the district ion with email. I can't think of a better term,. esoecially not one I have observed in actual use. If someone suggests a better term, I will be interested. Sep 30 at 3:08
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    "Postal mail" may be a touch awkward (in the UK just "post" would be more natural and other places will have their own first choices) but it's unambiguous and should be understood across the English-speaking world.
    – Chris H
    Sep 30 at 12:27
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    In the US, Postal mail is a commonly used term that's easily understood and is not awkward.
    – barbecue
    Oct 1 at 4:41
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In British English, the term used is "post" (never "postal mail").

Business customers can now reply to requisitions online, even if they sent us the application through the post. (UK government website)

A Notice of Appeal and accompanying documents may be delivered to the EAT by any method, such as email, fax, post, courier, or hand-delivery. (Employment Appeal Tribunal: Practice Direction, 2018 - PDF)

Oxford's definition is:

post mainly British mass noun: The official service or system that delivers letters and parcels. ‘winners will be notified by post’ ‘the tickets are in the post’ ‘I was attracted by this submission, which seems to me to gain some force from the provisions relating to service by post.’ ‘Rule 99 makes it plain that section 8 is subject to the provisions for service by post.’ ‘Service by post on the Second Defendant was not permitted.’ (Lexico)

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  • 1
    I have encounters this usage of "post" in BrE, particularly in fiction (which is where I most encounter BrE). But I have never heard or read of it being used in US English. Sep 30 at 3:10
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    Thank you rjpond! It's truly annoying I can't check more than one answer; I would've liked to check yours as well as Graham's... Truly useful answer!
    – Helen
    Sep 30 at 11:13
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    I like this answer best. Even in the US that would be widely understood, and you can add examples for clairty. All communication should be conducted in writing, and sent via post (USPS, FedEx, etc) or email.
    – BruceWayne
    Sep 30 at 14:05
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    @BruceWayne In the UK companies like FedEx, UPS, DHL etc provide courier services, not post. "Post" specifically means "items delivered by Royal Mail" (which is roughly of the equivalent of the USPS in America).
    – alephzero
    Sep 30 at 15:36
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    @alephzero good point, although technically same here in the US (they're couriers). But given all the comments and answers (and no clarity from OP for a BrE or AmE answer) I'd say a combo of "post" or "courier" with examples would work.
    – BruceWayne
    Sep 30 at 15:41
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If you say "mail or email" in that sentence then you're explicitly making a distinction between the two. Use "mail" thereafter for physical letters and "email" for (surprise!) emails. "Mail" as a term for posting physical letters is common to both British and American English, which is a bonus.

If this is a document with legal significance (for example banks saying how they'll communicate with you), there will probably be a definition of terms somewhere saying "Mail means any physical document sent through postal or courier services" and "Email means electronic mail as defined by standard RFC5532", or something like that. If you feel the need to be completely unambiguous, feel free to use something of this form yourself.

Edit: As suggested by @ChrisH, if you specifically need a written version of a document then you can also make your instructions unambiguous by saying "this must be sent by mail, not email".

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    You're right, but (this is more of a writing tip than a language point) don't forget that readers may not read your instructions linearly. That's one thing when you're giving permission to use either, but if you require snail mail for some correspondence, perhaps because a signature is needed, you'd need to state "mail (not email)" when describing that correspondence even if you'd included definitions earlier.
    – Chris H
    Sep 30 at 12:31
  • @ChrisH Good point - added that.
    – Graham
    Oct 2 at 8:58
  • This might be perfect in American English, and is admittedly fine for British English too, but I think "mail or email" is not a great solution considering the OP's actual case: "British or European English". I wrote an answer for why I think so: ell.stackexchange.com/a/299103/29750 Oct 2 at 18:31
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I'd use physical mail or postal service depending on if you want to emphasise the type of format or the type of courier. Both of these terms would be universally understood to be not email, both in American and in British English. Though the term post is rare in American, the traditional courier is USPS, the United States Postal Service. Though the term mail is rare in British, the traditional courier is Royal Mail.

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    I agree with "physical mail" in AmE. The USPS uses the term on some of their help pages, and their blog post about Informed Delivery from a few years ago uses the subtitle Bridging the Gap Between Physical Mail and Email
    – TylerW
    Sep 30 at 21:02
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    That's amusing that Americans call it mail and their service is called the postal service, and British call it post and their service is called mail.
    – nasch
    Oct 1 at 18:39
  • @nasch: American English actually distinguishes between the adjective "postal" (generally understood as relating to the USPS or the local equivalent) and the noun "post" (generally understood to mean a tall, skinny support beam, oriented vertically, might be recognized as a British-ism for "mail"). This probably makes very little sense to people whose native language is more morphologically regular than English.
    – Kevin
    Oct 3 at 1:43
  • Surely British English also has the noun "post" for a thing stuck in the ground, right? It's just that American English lacks the meaning for "post" as a synonym for "mail".
    – nasch
    Oct 4 at 19:12
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    @nasch Americans think that "mail" is a type of armor, while Brits argue it is a type of armour.
    – Adám
    Oct 4 at 19:15
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All communication should be conducted in writing, via paper mail or email

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In Canada, we use the term "lettermail"

Which is technically, Lettermail™, a trademark owned by Canada Post

You may additionally find answers on this post at the English Language & Usage stack exchange

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I'd use the word 'Post.' You can say 'post mail' or simply 'post.' It can describe the method of delivery or the items themselves.

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    "Post" is not a common term for physical mail in the US. Not clear from the question where the asker is.
    – nasch
    Oct 1 at 18:40
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Just want to be clear, in the UK, we never say postal mail, postal service, physical mail, post mail. It's just post.

You can say:

  • Can you put this in the post/mail please
  • Could you post/mail me a copy

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