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Email Netiquette - Part 2

This is the second in a series of four. The first can be found at Continuing our discussion from the previous post, I'll expound on points four through six in this 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.

Keep your signature under five lines and use the signature separator "-- " (dash, dash, space).
Email signatures can be a great way to communicate to your target audience a little bit about yourself. Generally, email signatures are used for contact information, in case someone wants to get in contact with you outside of email. Other email signatures might include some art, or fancy font, or just an abstract representation of something completely off the wall. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things to keep in mind with email signatures.

First, keep your signature short and concise. No one wants to see a lengthy signature, width or length. A good rule of thumb, is to keep the length under five lines. When email signatures get lengthy, they begin to distract the reader from the message. Especially if loud colors and font sizes are used in an HTML signature. Remember, it's the subject of your email, not what's in your signature, that is most important. So, keep the signature light, small and concise. You can use really anything in your signature. That's up to you. It can be contact information, such as cell phone or business fax, it could be a random quote you cherish, or something abstract. I use the first 5 generations of the glider from John Conway's Game of Life. It's plain text, it's not noisy, and it's only 3 lines. Plus, I always get at relpy every so often, asking what the signature means. Great conversation starter.

Second, when using signatures, it's important to use the signature separator, which is been standardized as "-- ", or "dash, dash, space". Most email clients that I'm aware of will prepend this to your signature by default. However, if you are unsure, check your email settings or preferences to make sure this is set appropriately. The reason for this, is some mailing list managers will trunk signatures out of view, so the body of the text is the only thing visible. Some mail clients can be setup in this manner as well. Because it's the body of the text that is important, and not the signature of the one sending the mail, many people just prefer to have their client chop the signature entirely. By making sure "-- " is in configured correctly, you are being considerate to those who wish not to be bothered by the noise a signature can create.

Do not attach unnecessary files, keep attachments small, and don't attach proprietary formats.
On technical mailing lists, email attachments are generally frowned upon. The reason being, is that usually the message can be conveyed without an attachment. If a screenshot is needed to help clarify its meaning, then there are many free image hosting services that would be appropriate for displaying the image. Then, a simple reference to the URL of the hosted image would be provided in the mail. This keeps the email itself light on used bandwidth for those reading your message.

The biggest complaint of email attachments is the size of the attachment. My mother will send me videos she finds hilarious, emotionally moving, or whatever. These videos are usually 10-20 MB in size, so I get to sit for a few minutes, waiting for my email to load, because the attachment is downloading. Rather, if she would provide a URL reference to the video online, I could parse the email much faster. So, if you must provide an email attachment, try to keep the size to a minimum. Zip it up, if necessary, to help decrease the size. I understand this is not always possible, but a good rule of thumb, would be to keep attachments to under 100 KB. This would mean that the email would load up for most people in a second or two. Even those who are still on a dial-up account, the message could be received in 30 seconds at the worst.

Lastly, don't assume that I have a license to view your attachment. While Microsoft Office might be nearly ubiquitous on most computers, sending a DOC or PPT file is usually in bad form. Instead, use standards-based formats, such as PDF, HTML or plain text. I once received an email that contained an XPS attachment. I literally had no clue what that was, and I did not have a program to open it. Going to the Google Machine, I found that this is an "XML Paper Specification" format designed by Microsoft to be the "PDF Killer". I found that it was exported from Microsoft Word 2007, and I needed Microsoft's XPS Viewer to view the utility. But, that utility is only available for Windows operating systems, and at the time, I was using my Debian GNU/Linux laptop. Long story short, I couldn't open the file. So, I had to reply to the sender of the email to please send me a PDF version of the attachment, as I had no ability to open an XPS file. I was polite, and in return, he was polite is accommodating my request.

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.

{ 18 } Comments

  1. jdong | September 19, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Not just Outlook is an offender -- Actually, K9 on Android I've found is a pretty bad offender at not line-wrapping at ANY number of characters, and even botching quoted replies to undo its line wrapping depending on the MIME type.

  2. Janne | September 19, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    "Keep the width of your message under 80 characters."

    Don't. You'll break your mail for a lot of people. Thing is, the 80 character limit is an artefact of text terminal display width. For readability, 80 characters is actually too long; around 60 characters is considered optimal (check a book, any book, and chances are it won't deviate much from that).

    Today people read email with any different line widths. While few people will read much wider texts than 80 characters, many will read narrower. Anybody reading the email through a phone is going to have narrower (perhaps much narrower) lines. People with bad eyesight that pull the text size way up is going to have 40, 30 or even smaller lines.

    If you insert line breaks where you happen to feel they belong then they make it impossible for the recipient to determine this for themselves. It is really, really annoying to get an email where the last word of each and every line overflows to the next one, where it sits all by itself. A secondary problem is if you write email using a monospaced typeface and the recipient is reading their email using a proportional one. Your lines will no longer be uniform in length, and again you'll have made things worse, not better.

    You, as the sender, do not know - can not know - how your recipient is going to read your email. All you can do is make sure your text is formatted to make it as easy as possible for the recipient to do what they want. It's really like html in that way: you write what you want to say, and let the recipient decide about the details on how to display it. Attempts to micromanage the receiver (deciding that 80 columns is correct for them, or hardcoding column widths and font selection for html) will more than likely simply frustrate and annoy them, which is not what you presumably intended.

    Instead, do not, whatever you do, insert line breaks yourself. Use line breaks only to separate paragraphs, nothing else. Every single mail client made in the past decade is perfectly able to reflow text to suit its user. Let them do their job.

  3. Janne | September 19, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    And, by the way, why does your blog comment system not accept double-linefeeds to mark paragraphs, and why is there not a word warning submitters about it anywhere around the comment submission box?

  4. Aaron | September 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    @Janne- Specifying the width of your email doesn't break email for anyone. Gads, if that was the case, people would piss and moan all day about how horrible email is. Setting your email width to 20 characters wide, 200 characters wide, or just flowing wrapped lines, it never matters to the recipient. The ONLY issue is if their character width is less than the number of characters you set for your message. This only happens when the recipient has configured their client to behave in a manner other than the sender intended. If you configure your client to display mail other than what the original sender intended, of course stuff is going to break, and that's no one's fault but your own. It might also be a problem when using screen real estate smaller than the line width. Even then, I'm on a small Palm Centro, and 80 characters fits just fine.

    Even when wrapping lines at 80 characters, that doesn't mean all my text is exactly 80 characters wide. It's left justified, not left AND right justified text. Not with monospace font. But then, when composing messages in plain text, the font doesn't matter, now does it?

    In regards to broken paragraphs, it's been reported before. It's not intentional, and I'm working on a fix. Your patience is appreciated.

  5. David | September 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Okular is able to open xps files. I do my taxes on Windows, and unfortunately, can't save the receipt as pdf, but have to print to xps. Ironically, Vista's XPS viewer craps out whenever I try to open xps files. The only way for me to view them was to find an open viewer on Ubuntu that could open them. I'm still running Karmic, so maybe other viewers can open them now too.

  6. Janne | September 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Aaron, maybe I'm misunderstanding you. I read your post to mean that you recommend actually inserting line breaks around (somewhat before) 80 characters, so the paragraph is already wrapped by the sender when the recipient receives it. This of course breaks any email client that can't show at least 80 characters wide lines (such as small-screen clients on phones), and breaks it for any user that for whatever reason isn't able to read when characters are small enough to show 80 characters wide text.

    No email client I have seen will insert line breaks; the few email I see that have hardcoded line breaks seem to have been generated by somebody using a separate editor or similar, then pasted the text into their client, linebreaks and all. But if you don't mean inserting line breaks, I'm not sure what you actually suggest.

  7. big package | September 19, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    If your IMAP server and your email client both support it, there are ways for the client to just get the email without the attachment. There are also IMAP extensions to get the server to convert the attachment between formats.

  8. Aaron | September 20, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    @Janne- No, I am definitely implying that line breaks are inserted. For both Thunderbird and Mutt, which I use both heavily, when my line reaches 72 characters, it wraps. If the word passes the 72 character limit, then it wraps to the next line. So, some lines will be 72 characters wide, some 69, some 71, etc. all ending on the word that most closely reaches the 72 character wide limit.

  9. Janne | September 20, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Aaron, then mutt is most certainly breaking email for people. Are you sure Mutt is actually inserting hard line breaks into the text stream it sends out, and not simply breaking lines for your benefit?

    This is exactly the same as coding a web page for a specific screen width and character size. Fine for some users, breaks the page for others, for no discernible benefit on the part of the sender other than a mostly illusory sense of control.

  10. Aaron | September 20, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    @Janne- Well, it's not Mutt that is inserting the hard line breaks, but Vim, the editor of choice that I use to compose my messages.

    :set tw=72

    Again though, unless people are on screen resolutions that are smaller than 80 characters or they are intentionally manipulating the message to display the mail in a manner different than the sender intended.

  11. Aaron | September 20, 2010 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    @Janne- Also, in regards to broken paragraphs, it seems to only be happening to a handful of comments. Many comments seem to be coming through just fine. I wonder if it has something to do with the browser being used? Check some of my Ramadan posts. Many people commenting without a problem of creating paragraphs with two line breaks.

  12. Aaron | September 20, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    @Janne- So, after running some SQL queries, the only users who are having a problem with the line breaks are Firefox 3.6.9 users on Ubuntu. Using any other Firefox version, a different browser, or a different operating system seems to not be affected. With that, I have been fixing comments, inserting line breaks in both yours, and others' comments, for this reason.

    I don't know if it's WordPress to blame with that user agent string, or if there is a problem with Firefox 3.6.9 on Ubuntu. Definitely worth looking into, although I don't know if I'll get to it any time soon.

  13. Janne | September 20, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    (Trying with It's All Text, and editing with gedit. See if it linebreaks then)"Again though, unless people are on screen resolutions that are smaller than 80 characters [...]"Which, again is what some people have, and not because they are ornery but because they ahve no choice. They may use a featurephone that simply can't show 80 characters wide. They may have bad eyesight and need to zoom the text really big. And you, as the sender, is gaining nothign at all by setting those line breaks. Zero. The only effect is to make your emails hard to read for a minority of users. For no benefit at all.

  14. Aaron | September 20, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I shouldn't be catering my email usage to the minority of users who might be using screen resolutions smaller than 80 characters. I should be composing my message that has the greatest impact on the largest number of users. And studies have shown that wrapped text between 60-90 characters improves readability, accuracy and comprehension. I'm not going to turn on flowed text, because maybe 1/100 of the people receiving my mail might be using a width smaller than 80 characters. That makes zero sense.

  15. Janne | September 21, 2010 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    But, Aaron, none of your recipients need you to reflow your text. You are helping nobody. Everyone of your recipients already reflow your text to a convenient width even if you don't insert line breaks. So you help nobody at all. The gain for you or any recipient of reflowing is zero. You are only adding a negative for a portion of your recipients without adding a positive for anybody.

  16. David Chiles | November 5, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Netiquette is very important!

  17. David Chiles | March 1, 2011 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Netiquette is very important.

    For more information about netiquette, visit,

    Everyone could use a little netiquette : )

  18. nah | January 10, 2013 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    I use gnus, which actually warns me if I have long lines. But I'm starting to think it might be just as well to use unbroken lines, because of mobile devices with small screens. Even the simplest of clients can reflow text in a received email so that it appears as max 80, but if you send pre-broken at 80 and the screen-width is max 40, you get these ugly linebreaks at all the wrong places.

    OTOH, it might not matter much in a year or two, since small screens seem to be on their way out again, and even the smallest of phones are getting really high resolutions.

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