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Email Netiquette - Part 1

This is the first in a series of four. It's been sitting in my archives since 2007, and I've been putting it off further and further, refining it here and there. I was going through my blog drafts, and thought I should finalize this, and post it. The other two will come in short order.

I'm subscribed to a great deal of mailing lists. Twenty-nine, actually. I receive upwards of nearly 200 personal emails per day. Not only personal email, but work mail too. In fact, with work, it approaches 500 per day. Above that, I spend A LOT of my time writing email. I'm not saying this to come off as some sort of expert on the subject. Rather, I know what bothers me with email, as well as what bothers others. I've seen this discussion over and over on mailing lists and even personal email. So, here's what I would say would be a sufficient list of "email netiquette".

My target audience is specifically those who are on technical mailing lists. However, I feel these netiquette rules can also apply to personal and corporate email as well. Here's a brief summary. I'll expound on each individual item later in the post.

  1. Use plain text (preferred) or HTML
  2. Top-post only when forwarding. Bottom-post otherwise.
  3. Trim your replies.
  4. Keep you signature under five lines, and use the signature separator "-- " (dash, dash, space).
  5. Do not attach unnecessary files, keep attachments small, and don't attach proprietary formats.
  6. Keep the width of your message under 80 characters
  7. Use a client that sends threading headers.
  8. Reply only to the necessary people (don't abuse CC: or "reply to all").
  9. Be short and concise. Don't ramble (stay on topic).
  10. Break up your paragraphs.
  11. Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation (avoid CAPS).
  12. Don't answer spam, and don't send out spam.

Use plain text (preferred) or HTML.
Most email conversations I've ever seen have never needed to be composed in HTML format. There was no need to embed an image to clarify the topic, format text to emphasize meaning, or use a fancy layout to enhance the message. Granted, corporations such as Amazon, Bose, Newegg, and others will send HTML email, completely formatted like a web page when a customer makes a new purchase, and they wish to send a receipt or tracking information. Personally, I think all that extra bloat is just that- bloat. The critical information is the text, not the images or layout. In fact, whenever I see an HTML email, 99.99% of the time, it could have been composed in plain text, and same meaning would have been conveyed.

The first problem with HTML email, is not everyone is using an email client that is capable of parsing HTML cleanly, or even at all. Plain text is the universal format. Every email client can parse plain text. Second, most cases of HTML email I've seen add a great deal of bloat to the size of the message. Especially when people add background images to "personalize" their messages. It's unnecessary, and when I have seen these "personalized" messages, they're not done cleanly. They're throwbacks to the 1990's when no one knew how to properly design a web page, so they just look hideous. Do you and everyone else a favor, and ditch the fancy fonts, background images, and animated signature.

However, with that said, I understand that there is a time and place for HTML email. There are times when you need to compose a table, which plain text will not display accurately. There are times when using a bulleted list, italic or underlined words are necessary. There's a time to sparingly use color. Sometimes, embedding images into the mail can add to the message the author is trying to convey. I don't have any problem with this. After all, composing an email document is just that- a document. It's word processing. There is a time and place for HTML email, and I accept that. Its need is usually rare, however, so plain text will probably suffice in most cases.

On a side note, one piece of netiquette that really doesn't deserve it's own subject, but can fit well here, is to avoid embedding URLs in the text. Instead, make reference to the URL with footnotes. For example:

Please refer to the documentation [1] for help on configuring your printer. Release notes for the software might be helpful with configuration as well [2]

[1] http://example.com/printer/docs/
[2] http://example.com/printer/release-notes/

You can put all of your footnotes at the bottom of your message, or you can interleave them, as Debian usually does with their weekly news.

Top-post only when forwarding. Bottom-post otherwise.
When reading English, you read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Email threads are the same way. When you join a discussion, you expect to read the question first, followed by the answer. Blog comments, web forums, BBS, IRC, Facebook, Identi.ca threads, on and on. People read top-to-bottom naturally to follow a conversation. Not bottom-to-top. However, for some strange reason, reading the answer first, followed by the question has become acceptable in email. I'm not sure how this happened or why we continue to put up with it, but this is perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of email threads. Case in point:

A: Trim the message, leaving appropriate context, then reply below.
Q: How should I reply to email then?
A: No.
Q: Should I include quotations after my reply?
A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
A: Top-posting.
Q: What is the most annoying thing in email?

I blame Outlook users and people who use web-based email such as Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc. for this gross perversion of the Internet. Some reasons top-posting sucks:

  • Top-posting is lazy. Just because your client puts some extra carriage returns before the original text, and starts your cursor at the top, does not mean it's acceptable. Press your delete key a few times, then press CTRL+END to get your cursor to the END of the message, and start typing there. We're talking 3-4 keystrokes for appropriately replying to email.
  • Top-posting is arrogant. Top-posting means that I want to read your reply first, before I get the full context of the message. It means the reply should be heard, before the argument. In spoken conversation, we would call this interrupting. Your message (spoken or written) is far more important than what you're replying to. It's just plain rude.
  • Top-posting also encourages email bloat, with message, after message after message beneath the reply. I'll cover trimming your replies in the next section.
  • Top-posting generally means that the person relpying has not read the thread, or possibly even the message they're replying to. In my experience in the world of email,

However, there are times when top-posting is appropriate, or at least acceptable. When forwarding emails to another individual, it's generally a good idea to tell the reader know what you've forwarded before they start reading the message. If they read the message first, and you had put your message text beneath the forwarded email, telling them what the message is about, it would be provide no benefit. So, top-posting when forwarding is certainly appropriate.

Top-posting is also acceptable in corporate environments, where the culture is to top-post (usually, because of Outlook). If you were to bottom-post all of your replies, you might throw off your readers who are expecting to see your reply at the top of the message, and not the bottom. In such an instance, you would be the scourge of everyone else, making for a possible uncomfortable working environment.

Lastly, top-posting a reply can be acceptable when you want to add information to the thread before you begin adding your reply. Things such as a warning of your tone, adding a new person to the thread via CC:, then summarizing the thread before the reply, or giving information about your reply before hand would be appropriate. So, while top-posting is generally discouraged in replies, there are a few times when it's okay. However, try to keep bottom-posting your replies the default behavior.

There's even an RFC that addresses appropriate posting style. RFC 1855.

Trim your replies.
Trimming your replies means to leave only the appropriate context that you are replying to, cutting extra cruft out of the message. This is another problem with top-posting, that I briefly mentioned above. When people top-post, they leave every reply in the thread in the message. The more people top-post to the message, the longer, and longer the message gets, adding a great deal of bloat. When people don't trim their replies, they remind me of pack rats- people who continually store stuff in their house, even though they'll never, ever see it or use it again, they have to have it "just in case". Their house gets cluttered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with crap. Not trimming your replies is similar in nature.

Let me give you some examples, so you can clearly see what I'm talking about. I'm subscribed to the Chromium Discuss mailing list. Due to the topic of the mailing list, many people are big Google users. As a result, many are using Gmail as their primary account. Not just using the account, but using the Gmail web interface. By default, the Gmail web interface will put a couple of new lines before the thread you're replying to, and place your cursor at the top of the message. So, as you can imagine, just about everybody top-posts. It's not 100%, however, as few people, such as myself, use an external client such as Thunderbird or Evolution, which encourage bottom-posting by default. So, the mailing list sees a mixture of bottom-posting and top-posting, with more top-posting than bottom.

Here's an example of a thread about someone having trouble setting their router password with the Chromium browser. Everyone in the thread top-posted, and did not trim their reply. So, the email message grew and grew in size. Everybody's inbox is being wasted, due to the inconsideration of all those top-posting, because of the massively redundant data.

Further, imagine someone just joining the list for the first time, and this message is the first one their receive as a new member to the list. They have to read the message in a convoluted upside-down top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top manner to get what is going on with the thread. Top-posting, as mentioned previously, is not appropriate, and should not be tolerated on mailing lists.

Now, let's look at an example of someone who trimmed their reply. Here is a reply about not updating the release calendar for Chromium. The subject tells the reader what is initially being discussed. The author trimmed the reply, leaving appropriate context for his reply. The context was that the calendar will be updated "tomorrow", and his reply with "Thank you". All the necessary information is there, and if a reader were to just join the list, and this was their first email, they would know enough about the thread, without having every message present.

As with top-posting, not trimming your replies is lazy, and again, it's rude. Some people don't have the hard drive space you might, or the bandwidth to pull down such a noisy message. Cutting out the cruft, leaving the relevant pieces in, is considerate, polite and logically sound. Do you, and everyone else a favor, and trim your replies.

{ 24 } Comments

  1. mc using Google Chrome 7.0.529.0 on Ubuntu | September 18, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    A nice set of guidelines, except...

    "Keep the width of your message under 80 characters"
    Pre-empting your explanation, just... No.

    This rule is ridiculous. Email is not code. Pandering to a tiny subset of users who read email in a situation where this would be helpful is of minuscule benefit compared to making the formatting awkward for everyone else using sane email clients, web mail, smartphones, etc.

    I do not want unnecessary line breaks just because some people's email clients are outdated, and expecting everyone to cater to your odd requirements is rude.

  2. Alan Pope using Firefox 3.6.10 on Ubuntu 64 bits | September 18, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Could have done with more refining before you sent it.

    "When reading English, you read right-to-left, top-to-bottom. "

    You might, I don't. I read English left-to-right, like everyone else.

    "Keep you signature under five lines, and use the signature separator “– ” (dash, dash, space)."

    s/you/your/

    "Top-posting is lazy. Just because your client puts some extra carriage returns before the original text, and starts your cursor at the top, does not mean it’s acceptable. Press your delete key a few times, then press CTRL+END to get your cursor to the END of the message, and start typing there. We’re talking 3-4 keystrokes for appropriately replying to email."

    Some devices have no control key, some don't actually even quote the previous message, but just dump you at the top and let you type directly there. Android shipped on many phones does this. To argue that top posting is arrogant without taking into account people who have (buggy) email clients (they can't change) is, well, arrogant.

  3. Stéphan K. using Google Chrome 7.0.528.0 on Ubuntu 64 bits | September 18, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I'm a strong advocate of forwarding as attachment. It allows the receiver to properly reply to the forwarded message. (The reply will then include proper message IDs and other headers.)Perhaps I feel this way because I've only seen this in work related mail. I'm not sure how mailing lists cope with this. But I personally don't see why someone would ever assume the receiver of a forwarded message would not want to reply to said message.Besides, I have yet to see a mailing list message that includes a forward. The best I've seen is a cross posted reply.

  4. Flimm using Google Chrome 6.0.472.36 on GNU/Linux | September 18, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    "Thunderbird or Evolution, which encourage bottom-posting by default"

    No they don't. Evolution doesn't. I'm pretty sure Thunderbird doesn't either.

    Personally, I feel the whole system of email is broken. If I had a blog, I'd write about it. Here are what email 2.0 would have in my dreams:
    - encryption (not even by default, but by obligation)
    - not HTML, but basic rich text, like BBCode or something
    - no artifical 80 character limit
    - an interface based on conversations, rather than an inbox and an outbox. This would eliminate the need to copy the whole message in a reply.
    - no hotlinking. All external data must be included as an attachment.
    - standardised contact details, easily shared
    - whitelisting by default. You'd have to maintain a list of friends, like on social networks or IM.

    Newsletters would have their own implementation. They would be similar to RSS, but with privacy in mind. There would be one standardised way to subscribe and unsubscribe, like with RSS feeds.

    Mailing lists would have their own implementation as well, with standardised ways of subscribing and unsubscribing.

  5. A.Y. Siu using Firefox 3.6.10 on Mac OS | September 18, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I hate mailing lists and almost never subscribe to them. When I do, I make sure they get filtered to an appropriate subfolder of my email I almost never read.

    It sounds as if you know what you're talking about with regard to mailing list emails. (I'll take your word for it.)

    For regular emails, though, I like to read replies at the top of the message, not at the bottom, because the reply is usually what I want to read. The quoted text below provides some more context in case I need some reminding about what was said beforehand. Most email conversations I have are not in the question-answer-question-answer format.

    I do prefer to get emails in plain text, but the only real limitation I see isn't the lack of tables and images (no need for those in emails)—it's the lack of bold and italics. Asterisks and underscores just do not provide the same effect.

  6. Aaron using Google Chrome 6.0.472.59 on GNU/Linux | September 18, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    @mc You didn't read the argument about why you should wrap at 80 characters, did you? It has nothing to do with code. It has everything to do with readability, comprehension and accuracy. Read the argument, then get back to us.

    @Alan Pope- Meh. I had made a comparison that gave that phrase accurate context, but ended up taking the analogy out, and left the "right-to-left" in. Fixed. Also, thank you for the other edit. In regards to Android phones, or other devices that don't bottom-post by default, maybe they should fix their client? Or use a client that doesn't assume I want to read your reply first, before reading the context?

    @Flimm- Yes, Evolution and Thunderbird both, by default, bottom-post. I use both. I'm familiar with their default behavior and characteristics.

    @A.Y Siu- Your top-posting assumes that I want to read the thread from bottom-to-top, a convoluted way of reading threaded conversations. Please check out every other Internet protocol that supports conversations. It's practically universally unanimous. Bottom-posting is the way we read. It makes zero sense to put the reply at the top.

  7. Paul Kishimoto using Google Chrome 6.0.472.59 on Ubuntu | September 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this great post — now I can link you instead of retyping the same points over and over.I like Evolution because it obviates some of the few cases you give for using HTML mail. It will compose bulleted or numbered lists, indents, centering or right alignment in plain text mail, then add the appropriate padding with spaces when the message is sent.

  8. Steve using Google Chrome 6.0.472.53 on Ubuntu | September 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    @Aaron Where's the argument for wrapping at 80 characters? I don't see it making sense unless you use a pure-text system. IMHO text should wrap to fit the size of screen or window you are using. My phone screen is less than 80 wide and may show proportional fonts anyway.

    I have to put up with Outlook at work and people have no idea how to structure emails and replies. You end up with long to-posted threads which are really hard to follow.I don't subscribe to many mailing lists as I just don't have time to keep up with them. I tend to use more web systems like forums so I can dip in when I have some time.

    I learnt a bit about kmail templates when mine stopped working recently. I've restored the defaults, which use bottom-posting. You can put the cursor wherever you want in a reply.

    @Flimm I like the idea of email with minimal encoding for formatting. html is OTT for most emails.email is one of the oldest and most widely used protocols still in common use. Changing it is going to be difficult. Google tried to offer an alternative in Wave, but many are reluctant to change.

  9. Steve using Google Chrome 6.0.472.53 on Ubuntu | September 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Oops, seemed to lose all my paragraph breaks in my reply. Did I need something more than a couple of line breaks?

  10. Tack using Firefox 3.6.10 on Ubuntu 64 bits | September 18, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I used to be vehemently anti-top-posting. I've come to actually appreciate top-posting in corporate environments -- not as a sort of resigned laissez-faire attitude that you suggest, but actually as the optimal way to format your emails in that environment.

    1. People get added and removed constantly from threads, as the discussion develops. New people who are added need the full context, so pruning of quoted text is very unhelpful.

    2. People at work use mobile devices extensively (and not just because the company I work at manufactures a particular kind of mobile device). The top-posting format makes sense there, especially when replying, as the quoted body needn't be transmitted over the air, just a reference to it. This is a useful bandwidth savings measure.

    I've always found bottom posting without any pruning of quoted text to be seriously obnoxious. No email client that I'm aware of anyway will automatically scroll to the start of the reply in a bottom-posted email. Unless I've just been added to a thread and want to read the whole thing, it means I must scroll to the bottom manually for each message.

  11. Tack using Firefox 3.6.10 on Ubuntu 64 bits | September 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I should add: on mailing lists, the proper format is meticulous pruning of quoted text with inline responses. I think everyone will agree there. :)

  12. Aaron using Google Chrome 6.0.472.59 on GNU/Linux | September 18, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    @Steve- This is what you get for writing one large post, then cutting out into 4 separate posts. The argument for an 80 character-wide email is coming in a subsequent post. Sorry for that. However, I'll give you the low-down here:

    Keep the width of your message under 80 characters.
    This might sound like an odd netiquette rule, but wrapping your message at 80 characters makes it easier for the recipient to read your message. In fact, the psychology department at Witchita State University did a study on this very thing. Which is better for reading text? Long columns of text or shorter columns? The results of the survey showed that people could read faster with greater accuracy and have better comprehension with two-column justified text than three-column (too short) or one-column (too long).

    Translating this to email, people don't want to read lengthy columns of text. When you wrap your text to a shorter justification, but not too short, as the study shows, it's easier for the reader to comprehend what you're talking about, and they can read through the text quicker. Major publishers know this as well. Pick up your favorite novel, and count the number of characters on a single line. I have a paperback copy of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and each line is wrapped at exactly 60 characters. I have another paperback copy of Macbeth, by Shakespeare. Each line wraps at exactly 50 characters. Looking through all my novels, I'm actually struggling to find a book that has more than 85 characters on a single line. The Debian System, written by Martin Krafft, wraps at 85 characters.

    The standardized accepted practice for email, is to actually wrap your email text at 72-75 columns. This gives enough room for others to reply to your message, which will usually prepend the two characters "> " to your original message, and still keep the length of the mail under 80 characters. As would be expected, Microsoft Outlook seems to struggle with this when writing emails initially, but can be configured to wrap at 80 characters for replies.

  13. notzed using Mozilla Compatible 5.0 on Fedora | September 18, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    You're about a decade too late on most of this. Especially wrt to html or 'wrap at 80 columns' - actually using 'plain html' is more useful since it lets the client render word-wrapping whilst maintaining paragraphs. Plain text isn't as simple as you believe it to be either. But the main problem with explicit html usage is just that it invariable leads to unreadable emails since nobody knows how to use it and outlook generates such horrible html.

    And top posting isn't really evil - bottom posting is worse if the quoting is equivalent. I prefer top or mixed and I suspect the only reason bottom posting was the convention is that is where the original email clients traditionally put the cursor. And for no other good reason.

    Stop fussing with ancient technical trivialities that were discussed to death decades ago. Netiquette should be more about treating others with respect, keeping posts on topic on specialist mailing lists, not nagging or re-asking the same questions, not mis-quoting to push a given view, starting new threads rather than replying to them, and remembering they are public places.

  14. Alan Pope using Google Chrome 7.0.517.5 on GNU/Linux | September 19, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    @Alan Pope- Meh. I had made a comparison that gave that phrase accurate context, but ended up taking the analogy out, and left the “right-to-left” in. Fixed. Also, thank you for the other edit. In regards to Android phones, or other devices that don’t bottom-post by default, maybe they should fix their client? Or use a client that doesn’t assume I want to read your reply first, before reading the context?

    Well done. That's exactly the arrogance I was talking about. "Fix your client!". It's a _phone_ with a mail app shipped on the firmware. There is no source, it's a google closed source mail client.

    You're sounding more and more like comic book guy from the simpsons with each blog post.

  15. A.Y. Siu using Firefox 3.6.10 on Mac OS | September 19, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    @A.Y Siu- Your top-posting assumes that I want to read the thread from bottom-to-top, a convoluted way of reading threaded conversations. Please check out every other Internet protocol that supports conversations. It’s practically universally unanimous. Bottom-posting is the way we read. It makes zero sense to put the reply at the top.

    I'm saying your advice sounds great for mailing lists, but what regular emails to your friends and family? I don't think of emails to friends and families as "threaded conversations." I want to read their reply. Anything quoted below is just a reminder in case I forgot what we were talking about.

  16. Aaron using Google Chrome 6.0.472.59 on GNU/Linux | September 19, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    @Alan Pope- What's arrogant about asking people to reply in a manner that causes people to read text in a normal manner? What's arrogant about asking people to configure their client, or heaven forbid, move the text cursor, so the reply is at end end of the message? The arrogance comes from the person sending the reply thinking I want to read his comment first, before understand the context of the reply.

  17. Paul Rouget using Firefox 4.0b7pre on GNU/Linux | September 20, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    For the signature, what about “–– Paul” (not \n after the separator)?

  18. Aaron using Google Chrome 7.0.517.8 on Mac OS | September 20, 2010 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    @Paul Rouget- If we want to get pedantic, the format for the "sigdashes" should be:

    \n-- \n

    where "\n" is the newline character.

  19. Aaron using Google Chrome 6.0.472.59 on GNU/Linux | September 20, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    @Steve I'm not sure why line breaks are being consumed. It seems to be happening to a few people. I thought I had it narrowed down to just Firefox 3.6.9 users on Ubuntu, but with you using Google Chrome, that appears to not be the case. I have seen other Ubuntu users get the line breaks inserted. So, I can't say for sure that I know what is going on. I'll keep an eye out for it though. Sorry for the headache.

  20. Sebastian using Firefox 3.6.10 on Windows XP | September 20, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    bottom posting is ridiculous, and I strongly disagree. The reason it has become widespread is because nobody wants to scroll through pages of misformatted jibber jabber and intended emails before getting to the actual content of the email that is relevant, which is the actual reply. so that goes on top.

    in a way however, you are right, because when it turns into a conversation, it gets confusing. that is where threading-powered clients and applications have an advantage, as you dont have to include the entire email conversation into the message quotation...

    difficult stuff

  21. James using Google Chrome 6.0.472.62 on Windows 7 | September 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Almost nobody sends emails with line breaks at 80
    characters. It makes
    assumptions which may not be true. What if the recipient
    has bad eyesight and
    uses a large font in their email client? Or is viewing the
    message on a mobile
    device? If they use a good email client in these
    situations, then they might not
    notice at all. Or they might have to deal with each line
    wrapping awkwardly.
    (like this). I'm a fan of just letting the client sort
    things out.

  22. nah using Firefox 17.0 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | January 10, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Could you give your headers anchors so it's possible to link to them? (Also, perhaps link directly from your TOC to each page/#header).

  23. nah using Firefox 17.0 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | January 10, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    btw, if you use K9 mail on Android, it can be set to bottom post.

    But really, what it boils down to is: write your answer after the question! If you're replying to the whole thing, I don't see any argument for top vs bottom, but if there are a bunch of questions, this kind of top-posted reply is really unreadable:

    Yes.
    No.
    With sugar.

    Alice wrote:
    > Should I get some more food?
    > And perhaps some muffins?
    > How do you like your coffee?

    vs

    Alice wrote:
    > Should I get some more food?

    Yes.

    > And perhaps some muffins?

    No.

    > How do you like your coffee?

    With sugar.

  24. nah using Firefox 17.0 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | January 10, 2013 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    A.Y. Siu: you should use a newsreader instead for mailing lists. Subscribe to the list through gmane.org's nntp service (and if the mailing list needs to be subscribed to in order to post to it, subscribe with no email delivery). That way you never get mailing lists into your email, but can still read them, and they stay out of your way.

{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. [...] Email Netiquette – Part 1 As with top-posting, not trimming your replies is lazy, and again, it’s rude. Some people don’t have the hard drive space you might, or the bandwidth to pull down such a noisy message. Cutting out the cruft, leaving the relevant pieces in, is considerate, polite and logically sound. Do you, and everyone else a favor, and trim your replies. [...]

  2. Aaron Toponce : Email Netiquette – Part 2 | September 19, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    [...] }Email Netiquette – Part 2This is the second in a series of four. The first can be found at http://pthree.org/2010/09/18/email-netiquette-part-1/. Continuing our discussion from the previous post, I’ll expound on points four through six in [...]

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