Email Netiquette

This is a page about email 'netiquette' - things to do and not to do when you are using email. Many of the hints are of most relevance to Usenet (News groups) and email list postings, however they also apply to ordinary email. Good habits are - good!

The page was originally written back in 2002: since then email habits have diverged hugely so that nowadays almost anything goes on private email. However, what is OK on a private email may not be the best thing on a mailing list! Personally, I still find private email that uses good netiquette to be the most pleasant to answer. Also, especially where a conversation ensues (as is often the case on a mailing list) only good netiquette really works properly. So I make no apologies for trying to push it!

There are lots of different email programs around: some encourage good habits, some do not. Because of these differences, the reasons for some of the suggestions here may not be obvious with your email program, so I will also give screen snapshots illustrating how some other emailers handle things and why your adhering to these rules will make your life easier by helping others to help you!

Modern email programs have all had to follow Microsoft in abilities. Unfortunately Mocrosoft took no heed of the accepted email standards (do they ever heed other standards?) and encouraged top posting, html attachments etc. Unfortunately these things discourage users from actually reading what they are replying to and encourage bad habits. The original Netiquettte standards (as explained here) were designed to encourage people to reply with consideration and thought, and to read what they were replying to. The old system works, and works properly!

Page Contents

Recommended email programs

Certain email programs (notably MicroSoft ones) are configured to make things more profitable to the authors. They are not configured to make your life easy, nor to make things easy for the recipients of your emails.

So, some years ago, a voluntary organisation was set up to compare and test email programs and to rate them according to how well they complied with what experienced users considered to be the 'best' way of doing emails.

I agree that 'best' is a moving target which may, with time, evolve. However the big commercial software suppliers are trying to certainly evolve software in a direction which makes things most profitable for them. Rarely, I feel, is this direction likely to be the best for the users. Yes: we should all evolve together and as things are found to be an improvement - we should use them. But consider those annoying HTML spam emails which probably keep popping up as spurious web pages on your computer: these are a direct result of the way Microsoft and others have tried to push email in the direction of becoming a WWW page. Who can honestly say that this is an improvement for the user? Clearly it is of financial benefit to the spammers - or they would not do it!

So you are well advised to have a look at the long list of email programs that have been tested and have been awarded the Good Netkeeping Seal of Approval (GNKSA) and use one: it will make email more rewarding for those who communicate with you, and therefore more rewarding also for you.

Email format

The standard for email is plain ASCII text. Yes - it's old fashioned and computers can do a lot 'better' nowadays. But is 'better' actually better?

Plain ASCI text doesn't have clever layout ability and cannot use fancy fonts and effects. But in email - the message is everything (or should be). Email should be about communication, about short, to the point, relevant messages.

Fancy effects can matter a lot - if you are trying to sell something. If you are trying to make an impression on your potential customers, or trying to get over things that cannot be expressed in mere words, then fancy effects start to be important - and it is surely for just these commercial purposes that MicroSoft and others have added the ability to send so many different types of email formats.

Unfortunately these fancy effects have some drawbacks: firstly - they are exactly the sort of fancy things that spammers want to do to fool you into buying their (usually worthless) services. Secondly - these fancy effects swell the size if the email by 400% or often much more. There's so much email around that this bloating of emails adds significant congestion - to the internet, to my computer, to yours and to anyone else's that it passes through. Thirdly: seasoned email users have evolved a 'Reply and Quote' system which works well. The plethora of other ways of responding confuses the system and makes email far less reliable and less pleasurable to use. Accuracy falls as a result and it gets more difficult for you to get the answers to the questions you are trying to ask!

I have written email filters on our sites to trap spams - and one on the measurements is whether the email is in plain ascii text, or in some fancy format. These filters don't bin your email - but they will result in you getting a warning and in the email being held for a period before it is read.

So consider very carefully the costs and benefits of using anything other than plain text for your emails.

QUILA - QUote and In-Line Answer

Email is an informal medium, more like a conversation than like letter writing. So people tend not to retain emails for long and they also tend to write many more emails than they would letters. So when replying to an email, it is a politeness to quote the point to which you are replying and to reply below that point.

You may well want your respondent to further comment on your answers: he will then quote your comments and, to retain the sense of the 'thread' of communication, he will also quote again the already quoted comments. Such a comment and counter-comment situation can continue ad infinitum (or do I mean ad-nauseam?) so the quoting can go to many levels, making it quite difficult to review.

Good email programs (when properly set up) quote the email you are answering by adding a quote character to the start of each line: the commonest quote character is a right angle-bracket - > - follow by a space, and you are well advised to use this although you can probably set your program to use something else if you feel perverse! But it's got to be something the respondent's emailer will recognise as a quote character and respond correctly to!

Even with this quote mark, things can get confusing - as a quoted quotes will have two 'quote marks' starting each line. So good email programs colour-in the paragraphs with different colours to show the level of quoting. This suddenly makes such conversations clear to follow and makes a 'good netiquette' email session easy to follow and a joy to participate in. The following screen shot illustrates this quote level colouring.


The currently-being-written text is black. First level quoting is blue. Second level (quoted quotes) are dark green. Third level quotes are light green and fourth (and higher) levels are purple. A complex and much quoted email now becomes clear and easy to follow!

If your email program is inferior, doesn't quote properly, and doesn't colour-in emails, don't make communication difficult for the other party: use proper quoting so his emailer can respond properly - or he won't find it enjoyable answering you and you won't get the full benefit from your original words of wisdom!

Correct quoting is especially important on a mailing list or usenet (news) posting where the postings are archived and are subsequently searched by other list members. If they cannot easily follow the thread, you may as well not have posted at all!

If you want to read more about this subject, do a Google search for 'Top Posting'.

It should be noted that Micro$oft programs in general encourage you to top post, do not encourage QUILA and do not properly mark quoted text. Seasoned email users generally do not therefore use Micro$oft programs. However top posting discourages proper reading of emails so the proper flow of question, answer, counter-question etc. does not occur. This makes technical support via top-posting inefficient and tedious!


Since email is an exchange, your email should not only look good as you send it but (more importantly if you want an answer) it should also be laid out in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the recipient to give you exactly the answers and information you want. So a standard has arisen. Many (most?) of the things listed here can be set up as a default style in your email program. Most of these rules are designed to make your email pleasant and easy to read. Surely you want your recipient to read ot - or you would not send it.Sop make their life a little easier by using a little care and attention to what you are writing.

Line length

A line length of 80 characters is commonly accepted as ideal: less and it's too broken up. More and your reader runs a risk of skipping lines. However: you have to consider that parts of your email will be quoted back to you so 80 characters is the maximum in practise. You should choose a wrap-width of less than this, perhaps 72 characters.

Line breaks

These will normally be inserted automatically by your email program and normally of a single line break character (normally ) is used. If you have anything else configured as standard - change it! One line break is the end of - a line. Two line breaks signify the end of a paragraph. Using this standard means that a program that properly re-formats quoted text can do so. Note that MicroSoft programs are incapable of properly reformatting quotes - something Microsoft don't seem prepared to fix!


Two line breaks denote the end of a paragraph. This will leave a 'white space' line between paragraphs, making them clear. If you use any other system, them the automatic reformatting that your reader is likely to use to reply to you will be messed up. In particular, never indent the start of a paragraph. The white space you use will result in ragged re-formatting - or your respondent will need to remove it my hand.


There seems to be a deplorable modern 'cool thing' of not using punctuation.

Punctuation has arisen with writing to make it easier to read. Capitals denote proper names and the start of sentences. Why make your email difficult to read by not using correct punctuation? If you make your email difficult or unpleasant to read - why should your recipient bother?


Capital letters are used only when you wish to strongly emphasise something: they are considered to be SHOUTING! So do not use them - except for VERY STRONG EMPHASIS! An email written in capitals is unpleasant and actually quite difficult to read.


Surely your email program has a spell checker? You should use it. Failure to do so probably indicates you are too lazy to do so - or maybe too stupid to realize you can! Mis-spelt emails do not read easily.

Top posting

Top posting refers to the practise of adding your reply to the top of the email to which you are replying. Outlook express does this by adding a section such as

----- Original Message -----
From: Support 
To: John Smith 
Sent: Monday, February 10, 2003 8:10 AM
Subject: Re: Pro 120

followed by the email to which you are replying. This encourages you to write your answer at the 'top' - hence 'Top Posting'.

The main problem with top posting is that it encourages you not to properly read the email to which you are replying. If I has a penny for every point that has been missed because of top posting, I would be extremely rich!

Microsoft, by encouraging top posting (indeed, by making any other sort of reply practically impossible) are degrading the usefulness of emails. Questions asked in emails do not get answered because of top posting, and this greatly reduces the usefulness of email.

Email works far better if it is much closer a telephone conversation than to paper correspondence. Any two way conversation flows properly only if reply follows question.

Of course this 'conversation flow' cannot happen in letters, but it does happen naturally in normal verbal conversation. Emails are less formal than paper letters and they work much better if this flow of point and counter-point is maintained. This cannot occur fluidly with top-posting. Indeed, a top posted reply will only work with extremely short emails, almost to the extent of using a separate email for each question to be asked.

If you are not commenting on a section of the incoming email, then it is not relevant to readers of your reply either - so should be snipped: most email programs will snip a marked block and insert a comment, e.g. [snip]. With top posting, chances are the whole quoted bit is not going to get used again - in many cases you may as well simply snip the lot!

With top posting, if you are commenting on points in the body of quoted email to which your respondent needs to refer, then you are in effect telling him you are too lazy to pick these points out and comment individually - and you are telling him to wade through and pick them out himself. Chances are he will not do so. You won't get the response you should!

The second point about top posting is that it greatly increases the size of the email - as you should be removing rubbish as you reply. You are not going to do this editing if you are top-posting! It only takes a few people to top post and an email can grow to stupid lengths. That severely clogs mailing list programs and email archives!

Of course, 'Bottom posting' - i.e. quoting the whole email and then putting all your comments together at the bottom, is just as bad!

Anyone top-posting to mailing lists may be reprimanded!

Excessive Quoting

If you want the conversation to be relevant and to the point, then, when a subject has been exhausted - delete it! In general, the parts of the email you are quoting should always be significantly smaller that is your new and presumably original contribution.

Worst of all are those top posted emails where a long original is quoted in full, with a comment like 'Me too!' top posted!

MicroSoft's method of adding '----- Original Message -----' followed by a few headers is particularly bad as it encourages top posting.

Anyone quoting excessively on lists run by 4QD may be reprimanded!

Signature files

Emails are essentially anonymous: it is usually difficult to tell, from the 'From' address only, who the sender is. So in the early days, the standard was to append a signature file to the footer of the email. This .sig file was appended automatically by the email program, once it had been set up, and enabled you, the sender, to identify yourself to the recipient.

Microsoft in their wisdom chose to ignore the sig file. Their email program does not seem to handle it at all. So if you are using such an email program, remember that your recipient may not know who you are!

A feature if 'standard' emails which is all too often not used are signature files. An approved email program has an ability to add a standard file to the bottom of any email you send out. So any email that I, as support at, send out automatically has appended a 'footer' which looks like


The line "This is a test email" is the email I actually wrote. The rest was appended automatically. Note the line -- separating the email body from the signature file: this is the agreed standard sig separator and it consists of two dashes and a space character. Its an agreed standard so that an approved emailer can remove the signature automatically when replying - as surely bo sensible emailer should return the writer's signature when replying.

Unfortunately Outlook Express (not having GNKSA approval) does not handle signature files properly and returns them, so after several incorrect top posted replies the email ends up with multiple signature files at various quote levels, like this:


However, by this time the appended emails have grown so long that nobody's going to be reading this far down and they are simply a waste of space, email bandwidth and resources on your computer and on mine. But then this profligate bloating of computer resources is exactly Microsoft's visible philosophy.

It may be possible to set up Outlook express to behave sensibly - but I do not use it so you will have to look elsewhere for assistance. I suggest a Google search!

HTML Attachments

HTML is the 'language' (actually isn't not really a language, but a standard for 'marking up' text) for WWW pages on the internet. It has no place in emails but MicroSoft and others have tried hard to convert email to be the same as WWW pages. This enables spammers to send those delightful 'You have won a free entry to our porn site' type of emails that pop up unannounced on your computer as www pages.

Almost to a man, experienced users detest html emails. However MicroSoft and AOL email programs send, by default, an HTML copy of any email you write - probably without your being aware of it! You should therefore check your email programs' configuration and make sure that html is turned off. If you don't know how to do this, see our page How to turn off HTML or Cambridge Electronics Laboratories which also explains AOL.

HTML attachments are always far bigger that the original: usually something like 3-4 times as big. This is a severe extra load on the internet, on your computer and on your recipients. If posted to a mailing list, every member not only gets a bigger email than necessary but the extra rubbish clogs up the archives. Any program for viewing the archives must be able to read plain text and as html attachments are quite variable in format, they all show html as if it was plain text so readers see the message twice, which makes the archives a lot more complicated to view.

My email program, Pluto, also handles news and mailing lists. It usually contains about 300 assorted articles and its files are around 80MB. If all of these had HTML attachments - the files would be around 300MB and the whole program would be far from the fast access database that it is! HTML is unnecessary and is a waste of global time and resources! Do not use it.

Anyone posting html to lists run by 4QD will be warned: most people do it unaware! If you subscribe to these lists, you can view the archives (see Genealogy sites Mailing Lists and if an email has an HTML attachment you will see the marked up text displayed: it contains lots of < and > signs and starts, for instance:


Other Attachments

Generally attachments of any kind are unwelcome and really have no place on mailing lists, though they may have a place in private emails. There is however no specific ban on attachments - except when the whole email posted to the list is over-length.

Attachments are - attachments. Files attached to the email. They are not the email, and should not therefore replace the email. However there is a growing tendency for email programs to send out the whole email, not as body text but as an attachment. This presumably is so that the spammers (who are the main culprits) can have their email pop up automatically on your computer. This practise is abhorrent to me - and to all the other users I have spoken to. Don't be part of the problem. Use ASCII text based emails - without attachments.

If you are attaching anything, do make sure that your recipient is running the same software that you are - or he will not be able to read it. For instance, anyone using Unix, RISC OS or any operating system other than Windows may not be running any Microsoft programs, so sending them a Word file is a waste of your time and theirs!

It's best to check that your recipient can actually read any attachment you are intending to send before doing so!

Incidentally, I am considering adding a contact form to all of the www sites I run. If I do this I will then be able to reject to the sender any email that has an attachment. This will simplify our work in handling badly written emails and in rejecting spam, so it appears to make good economical sense too. It's an unfortunate fact that in today's fiercely competitive commercial climate one must simplify things and I would rather annoy a few customers who cannot cope properly with emails than I would like to alienate good customers by not giving the quick response they want.

4QD support emails

It would be impertinent of me to dictate to customers how they should use emails. However it is very noticeable that many customers do not pick up on answers to their questions and do not answer questions that are asked of them! Most support transactions are two way conversations and we need good information from you if we are to help you. So it's to your advantage to make both ends of the communication as painless as possible.

The main thing you should be aware of is that support do not top post. Many years experience with email have proven the top posting discourages proper conversation. See Top Posting, above.

Other relevant pages

A Google search will reveal many pages giving hints on writing emails. The following links may be of interest:

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Page design and © 2002-2008 Richard Torrens.
Page first published 28th December 2002.
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