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Beginner's Guide to Email

Page Contents

Email - How It Works

Beginner's Guide to Email - Introduction

Email - Acronyms Jargon

Beginner's Guide Email - Context

Beginner's Guide Email - Format

Beginner's Guide Email - Gestures

Beginner's Guide Email - Greetings-Signatures

Beginner's Guide Email - Intonation

Beginner's Guide Email - Layout

Beginner's Guide Email - SUMMARY


Email - How It Works

It can take days to send a letter across the country and weeks to go around the world. To save time and money, more and more people are using electronic mail. It's fast, easy and much cheaper than the using the post office.

What is e-mail? In its simplest form, e-mail is an electronic message sent from one computer to another. You can send or receive personal and business-related messages with attachments, such as pictures or formatted documents. You can even send music and computer programs.

Follow the Trail:

Just as a letter makes stops at different postal stations along its way, e-mail passes from one computer, known as a mail server, to another as it travels over the Internet. Once it arrives at the destination mail server, it is stored in an electronic mailbox until the recipient retrieves it. This whole process can take seconds, allowing you to quickly communicate with people around the world at any time of the day or night.

Sending and Receiving Messages:

To receive e-mail, you must have an account on a mail server. This is similar to having an address where you receive letters. One advantage over regular mail is that you can retrieve your e-mail from any location. Once you connect to your mail server, you download your messages.

To send e-mail, you need a connection to the Internet and access to a mail server that forwards your mail. The standard protocol or procedure used for sending Internet e-mail is called SMTP, which stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. It works in conjunction with POP servers. POP stands for Post Office Protocol.

When you send an e-mail message, your computer routes it to an SMTP server. The server looks at the e-mail address (similar to the address on an envelope), then forwards it to the recipient's mail server, storing it until the addressee retrieves it. You can send e-mail anywhere in the world to anyone who has an e-mail address. Remember, almost all Internet service providers and all major online services offer at least one e-mail address with every account.

At one time, e-mail on the Internet was good only for short notes. You couldn't send attachments, such as formatted documents. With the advent of MIME, which stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension, and other types of encoding schemes, such as UUencode, not only can you send messages electronically, but you can also send formatted documents, photos, sound and video files. Just make sure that the person to whom you send the attachment has the software capable of decoding it.

If you are new to e-mail, you'll be interested in reading the next post, "Beginner's Guide to Effective E-Mail for tips on style"

Beginner's Guide to Email

Beginner's Guide to Effective Email
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood


I believe strongly in the value of electronic mail in both corporate and personal domains. Email is cheaper and faster than a letter, less intrusive than a phone call, less hassle than a FAX. Using email, differences in location and time zone are less of an obstacle to communication. There is also evidence that email leads to a more egalitarian information structure.

Because of these advantages, email use is exploding. By 1998, 30% of adults in the United States and Canada had come on-line.

Sadly, in the twenty-plus years that I have been using email, I have seen a large number of people suffer mishaps because they did not understand how to adjust their communication styles to this new medium. I wrote this document to try to help people avoid those problems.

This is not a document on the mechanics of sending email - which buttons to push or how to attach a photograph. Those details are different for every different email software package, and are better handled by manuals for the program. I instead focus on the content of an email message: how to say what you need to say. I don't think of this as email etiquette (commonly called netiquette) because I don't think these guidelines merely show you how to be a nice person. These guidelines show you how to be more efficient, clear, and effective.

This is not dogma. There will be people who disagree with me on specific points. But, if there was only one right answer, there wouldn't be a need to write this guide. Hopefully, this guide will make you examine your assumptions about email and thus help you maximize your email effectiveness. Then you can write to reflect your own personality and choice.

What Makes Email Different?

Electronic communication, because of its speed and broadcasting ability, is fundamentally different from paper-based communication. Because the turnaround time can be so fast, email is more conversational than traditional paper-based media.

In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a chance to ask for clarification. With email documents, your recipient can ask questions immediately. Email thus tends, like conversational speech, to be sloppier than communications on paper.

This is not always bad. It makes little sense to slave over a message for hours, making sure that your spelling is faultless, your words eloquent, and your grammar beyond reproach, if the point of the message is to tell your co-worker that you are ready to go to lunch.

However, your correspondent also won't have normal status cues such as dress, diction, or dialect, so may make assumptions based on your name, address, and - above all - facility with language. You need to be aware of when you can be sloppy and when you have to be meticulous.

Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous to use in email.

Another difference between email and older media is that what the sender sees when composing a message might not look like what the reader sees. Your vocal cords make sound waves that are perceived basically the same by both your ears as your audience's. The paper that you write your love note on is the same paper that the object of your affection sees. But with email, the software and hardware that you use for composing, sending, storing, downloading, and reading may be completely different from what your correspondent uses. Your message's visual qualities may be quite different by the time it gets to someone else's screen.

Thus your email compositions should be different from both your paper compositions and your speech. I wrote this document to show you how to tailor your message to this new medium.


Email - Acronyms Jargon

A number of new users have asked me to include a jargon/acronym page for email. Contrary to how you might feel, there is not a conspiracy out there to try to exclude you. Every group that spends any time together develops its own shorthand notation; it is not surprising that people forced to use the unnatural action of typing would be inclined towards acronyms. Some of these come from Usenet newsgroups, some of the more "gestural" ones come from Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

Obviously it would be nice of seasoned users to not pepper novices with an enormous amount of jargon, but on the Internet, nobody knows you are a newcomer.

Here are some of the most common acronyms and expressions:

BTW - By The Way

FYI - For Your Information

IMHO - In My Humble/Honest Opinion

RTFM - Read The Manual ("Manual" here refers to any documentation)

LOL - [I] Laughed Out Loud [at what you wrote]

RSN - Real Soon Now

ROTFL - [I am] Rolling On The Floor Laughing [at what you wrote]

<g> - grin

<hug> - hug

These are less common, but show up occasionally:

TTFN - Ta-Ta For Now

YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary (taken from a disclaimer that legally must be given any time automotive fuel efficiency ratings are used in U.S. advertisements)

TIA - Thanks In Advance (also sometimes written advTHANKSance)

Jargon that is sometimes used:

spam - Unsolicited email sent to many people simultaneously, usually commercial, but occasionally political.

bounce - A message that was returned to the sender, either because the email address was incorrect or because there was a configuration problem on the receiver's end. Can also be a verb: "I tried sending email to my Aunt Mabel, but it bounced. I guess she doesn't work there any more."

distribution list - A single email address that resends to many others, allowing a discussion to continue easily among a quasi-stable group of participants. Also called emailing lists or listservs (from LIST SERVers).

bot - A piece of software that acts on behalf of and in place of a remote human (from roBOT).

mailbot - A piece of software that automatically replies to email.

listbot - A piece of software that manages distribution lists. Also called a listserver or majordomo (after the name of a
common list server).

post - Send to a distribution list or Usenet newsgroup, i.e. to a quasi-stable group of people.

flame - An electronic message that is particularly hostile. Can also be a verb: "Whooeee! I posted a rude cat joke to my company's cat-lovers mailing list, and wow, did I get flamed!"

lurk - To read messages anonymously (in either a mailing list or Usenet newsgroup) without posting.

ping - Test to see if the other person is there/awake/available. (This comes from a Unix test to see if a machine (or its net connection) was active or not.) "Lunch tomorrow? I may be busy with a client. Ping me at eleven thirty or so."

A term that I would love to see popularized is "NRN", for "No Response Needed". Sometimes, without body language, it isn't clear when an email-based conversation should be ended.

To unravel jargon and technical Internet terms, check out these links:

Internet Literacy Consultants' Glossary of Internet Terms

Dictionary of Computer Acronyms and Jargon

A simpler list is at Harry Yeatts' acronyms page


Beginner's Guide Email - Context

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Context
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

In a conversation, there is some minimum of shared context. You might be in the same physical location, and even on the phone you have, at minimum, commonality of time. When you generate a document for paper, usually there is some context embedded in the medium: the text is in the proceedings of a conference, written on a birthday card, handed to your professor with a batch of Econ 101 term papers, or something similar.

With email, you can't assume anything about a sender's location, time, frame of mind, profession, interests, or future value to you. This means, among other things, that you need to be very, very careful about giving your receivers some context. This section will give specific strategies for doing so.

Useful Subject Lines

A subject line that pertains clearly to the email body will help people mentally shift to the proper context before they read your message. The subject line should be brief (as many mailers will truncate long subject lines), does not need to be a complete sentence, and should give a clue to the contents of the message. For example:
Subject: need 3 thrombos by Tues

Chris - I need three thromblemeisters for Thursday's
demo in Boston. They need to be left-handed, and
they need to be packed for shipping by Tuesday night.

Here the subject line summarizes nicely the most important details of the message.
If your message is in response to another piece of email, your email software will probably preface the subject line with Re: or RE: (for REgarding). If your email composition software doesn't do this, it would be polite to put in RE: by hand.

Subject: Re: need 3 thrombos by Tues

Pat - I've got two thromblemeisters already packed
from last week's demo, but I don't have another
functional left-handed one right now. Can you
cope with two lefties and one rightie?

For time-critical messages, starting with URGENT: is a good idea (especially if you know the person gets a lot of email):

Subject: URGENT: need left-handed thrombo

I've *got* to have another left-handed thromblemeister
for the Boston demo, and I need it by tomorrow
afternoon. Chris only has two, and I've got to have
three. Chris *does* have a broken leftie, so if
anyone could fix that one, or if they have one in
their desk somewhere, I'd really appreciate it!

For requests, starting with REQ: can signal that action is needed:

Subject: REQ: turn in thrombos

Pat's call for a left-handed thromblemeister
turned up 12 functional lefties that were
lying around people's offices unused. Please
take a moment to look around your area for
thromblemeisters (rightie *or* leftie) that you
are no longer using, and get them back to Chris.

If you are offering non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with FYI: (For Your Information) is not a bad idea, as in

Subject: FYI: donuts in break room

The donut fairy left a dozen doughnuts in the
downstairs break room. First come, first served!

Information, Please
Do yourself a favor and eliminate the word "information" from your subject lines (and maybe from the body of your message as well). When I was the webmaster for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I got a lot of email that looked like this:
Subject: information

Please send me information about UIUC.

This gave me very little clue as to what the person wanted to know about: admission application deadlines? The number of students? The acreage? The number of buildings? Was I supposed to send paper documents or give URLs? The only thing I could do with email like this was ask for further context. Mail like this would have been much better as
Subject: UIUC history

Are there any Web pages about the history of the U of I?

Quoting Documents
If you are referring to previous email, you should explicitly quote that document to provide context.
Instead of sending email that says:


> Did you get all of the left-handed thromblemeisters
> that you needed?


The greater-than sign (>) is the most conventional way to quote someone else's email words, but your email software may use a different convention.
Even if there are a fair number of words in your response, you still might need to quote the previous message. Imagine getting a response on Monday to some email that you can't quite remember sending on Friday.

I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see
the other one before they make up their minds.

Your response would probably be the highly articulate, "Huh???" It would be much easier for you to understand email that said:
> I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassembly
> ready; as soon as I get a decision on the
> thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go.
> Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether
> they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or
> do they want to wait and check out the right-handed
> one first?

I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see the other one before they make up their minds.

This is substantially better, but now errs on the side of too much context. The first three lines have nothing to do with the question being answered. You should only include enough to provide a context for the message and no more. (Peter Kimble, my high school computer science teacher, now gives his students the heuristic that at least half of the lines in an email message should be their own.)
You need only enough context to frame the question being answered:

> Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether
> they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or
> do they want to wait and check out the right-handed
> one first?

I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see
the other one before they make up their minds.

Remove Pronouns

The above example gives a good amount of context, but the response to it still takes a little effort to follow. A good rule is to look very carefully at all pronouns in your first three sentences. If they don't refer to something explicitly stated in the email, change them to something concrete.
> Have you talked to the thermo guys [about which handedness
> they want]?

I talked to the thermo group on Wednesday, and they
think the left-handed thromblemeister will probably
work, but they want to evaluate the right-handed unit
before they make up their minds.

Now the answer is very clear and specific. And, since the response contains implicit yet clear references to the original message, less explicitly quoted material is needed. Responses like this, with the context mostly in the body of the message, are the easiest to understand. Unfortunately, they take the longest to compose.
If you want to quote a sentence that is in the middle of a paragraph, or wraps around lines, go ahead and remove everything but the part that you were really interested in, inserting "[...]" if you have to take something out in the middle. You can also paraphrase by using square brackets, as above.

If the message isn't important enough to you to warrant the time to pare the original message down, include the whole thing after your response, not before. If you put the original message at the end, your readers don't have to look at it unless they don't understand the context of your response.


You may know what you are talking about, but your readers may not. Give them the proper context by:

* Giving useful subject lines
* Avoiding pronouns in the first three lines
* Quoting the previous message

Beginner's Guide Email - Format

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Format
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

The underlying rules governing email transmission are highly standardized, but there are a large number of different software programs that can be used to read email. It's quite possible that the message you send won't look at all the same when displayed on your correspondent's screen. You therefore have to be careful about how you present your text. This section will discuss the problems that may arise from a mismatch between the sending and receiving software, and show how to avoid them.

Fancy Text

Some email reading software only understands plain text. Italics, bold, and color changes will show up as control sequences in the text. You might send something like:
Hiya! Hey, I loved the presentation you gave to Jack this morning. Great Job!
but if your correspondent's software can't handle formatting, the message could show up as:
Hiya! Hey, I <I>loved<I> the presentation you gave to
Jack this morning. <B>Great Job!<B>

Web documents are particularly difficult to read with older email programs. You may have a choice of sending the web page as text or as HTML; keep your correspondent's capabilities in mind when you make that choice.

Extended Character Sets

Back in the dark ages of 1982, when the email specs were being written, the decision was made to encode email in such a way that only 128 different characters - letters, numbers, punctuation, and so on - could be transmitted from one computer to another. This allowed some free space for error correction - something important when computers were calling each other with modems.

However, the net is a different place now. Characters like ä, ç, and Ø are now important for large numbers of email users. So now there is a way of encoding data so that 256 different characters can be represented, called "quoted-printable".

Unfortunately, the underlying transport is still limited to 128 different characters, so the email gets converted to the more limited set, transmitted, then (hopefully) converted back on the other end. If the receiving software doesn't know how to do quoted-printable (or if something gets munged somewhere), the extended characters will show up as an equals-sign and two letter/digit code:

La premi=E8re journe=E9 de nos deux voyageurs fut assez agr=E9able.
Ils =E9=taient encourag=E9s par l'id=E9e de se voir
possesseurs de plus de tr=E9sors que l'Asie, l'Europe, et
l'Afrique n'en pouvaient rassembler. Candide,
transport=E9, =E9crivit le nom de Cun=E9gonde sur les arbres.

So why do you care? After all, you might not ever use umlauts. You care because there are "special" characters that you probably will encounter, that are NOT part of the standard extended character set, but which some software will allow you to insert. Even if your correspondent's software knows how to convert codes back to extended characters, different computers have different symbols for the same codes. For example, the trademark symbol, bullet, and "curly" quotation marks are all legal characters in both Windows95 and MacOS, but are in different places in the character set. For example, Windows thinks that character number 241 is a ñ, while the Mac thinks that character number 241 is a Ò. Thus you have yet another reason to worry about what your correspondent's email software is capable of.

Web Links

Some email reading software will recognize URLs (Uniform Resource Locators, or web addresses) in the text and make them "live". While some software recognizes URLs from the "www.", most software recognizes URLs by the http:// at the front. Thus, if there is a URL in your email, it is much safer to include the http://!

You should also be careful about punctuation - especially periods - right after a URL. For example, take the message

Hi - The URL is http://www.webfoot.com/writings.html. See
if you like it!

The software on the receiving end may think that that last period after the URL is part of the URL. Or, if the software doesn't recognize links, the reader may cut-and-paste too much. Either has the potential to lead to an ugly email exchange, with your correspondent insisting that the page doesn't exist and you insisting that it does. I will admit that it looks ugly, but it causes less confusion if there is at least a space after the URL:
Hi - The URL is http://www.webfoot.com/writings.html . See
if you like it!

People who are cutting and pasting might also select too little. Since HTML files can have either the extension .html or .htm, this can also be a difficult mistake for your reader to catch. To make cut-and-paste mindlessly easy for people, I try to always put URLs on a separate line:
Hi - The URL is
See if you like it!

Yes, the period after the URL is now missing. Yes, this is ungrammatical, but I sure don't want to put it on the next line! I have found it worthwhile to trade grammatical perfection for easier cut-and-paste.

Some URLs are so long that they will get split into two lines:

Hi - The URL is
See if you like it!

If your correspondent's email software makes links live, it is probably not capable of realizing that formality.html belongs with the rest of the URL.
Hi - The URL is
See if you like it!

If your correspondent is cutting and pasting, he or she may not see the last bit. What you can do is put angle brackets around the URL. Some (but not all) email software will recognize that stuff inside angle brackets should be kept together:
Hi - The URL is
See if you like it!

Punctuation and Quotation Marks

Another grammatical rule that I usually break is the placement of punctuation. American grammar rules say that punctuation belongs inside quotation marks, for example the period in the next sentence:
Bob said, "I love you madly."

That's fine when the stuff in quotes is normal speech, but can cause problems when discussing computer input. Consider:
When you get to the password box, type "smiley."

Is the period something that goes in the password box or not? I prefer to use British grammar rules and say
When you get to the password box, type "smiley".

This makes it clear that the period does not go in the password box.

I could switch back and forth between the two styles, depending on whether the thing in quotes was to be typed or not, but I would rather be consistent so that if the period is supposed to be in the password box, that will be clear.

If you can't bear to do such gyrations, modify the sentence so that there isn't punctuation there:

When you get to the password box, type "smiley" and hit return.

or if you want to make it absolutely clear:
When you get to the password box, type
and hit return.


Some mailers support "attachments", where you can specify a document to send through email. This allows people to share essentially any file in any format. GIF-encoded images, JPEG-encoded images, Word documents, WordPerfect documents, Photoshop files, Excel spreadsheets, and executable files are just a few of the types of documents that can be sent.

If your correspondent has a mail reader that can handle attachments, this can work very well: a long attachment can be looked at later. However, if your correspondent's email software doesn't understand attachments and you send a non-text file (like a Word document, a binary, a picture, or even compressed text), be advised that it will appear as lots of garbage. Pages and pages of garbage, usually.

Even if your correspondent has email software that understands what attachments are, they still have to have software to read the document. Think of it this way: somebody can use the Post Office to send you any kind of document. But if you send someone microfilm, they probably won't be able to read it. Even executable programs can't always be useful to your correspondent. Macintosh programs won't run on Microsoft Windows machines; Windows95 programs will not run on machines that only have DOS installed.

Furthermore, even if your correspondents can receive and view the attachment you send them, if they are low on disk space or dial in from home to get their email, they will not be happy to receive a 200MB video, no matter how funny it is.

It almost always better to post large documents on the Web and email the URL instead of the file. If you don't have that option, please email your correspondents first and ask them if they can handle a large attachment of that format.


If you don't know what email reader your correspondent has, play it safe.
* Don't use formatted text
* Be aware of special characters
* Send web pages as text
* Type in http:// before your URLs
* Be cautious with attachments

Also bear in mind that punctuation doesn't mix well with URLs or quotations of things people should type.

Beginner's Guide Email - Gestures

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Gestures
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Not only does text lack the emotional cues that vocal inflection gives, text lacks cues from body language. There is no twinkling of the eyes to say you are kidding, no slapping the back of your hand in your palm to show urgency or frustration, no shoulders slumping to display discouragement.

While you are unable to accompany your words with hand or facial gestures, there are several textual stand-ins for gestures.


A facial gestures can be represented with what is called a "smiley" or "emoticon": a textual drawing of a facial expression. The most common three are


(To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look at them sideways. You should see little faces.)
While people will have slightly different interpretations of the exact difference between the upper two, my personal opinion is that the upper one means more "I'm happy" and the lower one means more "I think I'm being funny". The last one is pretty universally understood as "I'm sad".

Typical examples:

Hey, guess what - I got the left-handed
thromblemeister spec done ahead of time! :-)
I'm on my way to fame and fortune now! ;-)

The second smiley, the ;-), indicates that you don't really believe that your boss will give you that big raise. It is similar to but not as fierce or trendy a rebuttal as a "NOT!" appended to the end of a sentence:

Hey, guess what - I got the left-handed
thromblemeister spec done ahead of time! :-)
I'm on my way to fame and fortune now - NOT!

There are a wide range of ASCII gestures available to you, from ill (%^P) to angry (>:-<) to astonished (:-o), limited only by your imagination. There are whole Smiley Dictionaries out there if you are feeling uncreative. (Note: I think that some of the Smiley Dictionary definitions of the basic smileys aren't a totally accurate reflection of the way I see smileys used, but your mileage may vary.)

Pause Equivalents

Imagine that you ask someone if you can turn the knob up to ten and a half. Suppose he says, "Well", then pauses for a long time, scratches his head, looks down at the floor, winces, grits his teeth, and says again, "Well", then pauses and says, "It might not explode". You'd get a sense of just how bad an idea it would be, while the text:

Well, it might not explode.

gives less information. I like to use lots of whitespace and typed-out vocalizations of "I'm thinking" sounds, as follows:

Weeeellllll.... errr hem.

Wellll, it *might* not explode.

You can also use whitespace to make it more clear which words belong to which clause. For example, the following is very difficult to parse

Did you want to use a left-handed thromblemeister or a
right-handed one with a half-twist or a Jackadoody brocket?

You could instead haul out your high school notes on outlines:

Did you want to use
1. a left-handed thromblemeister
2. a right-handed one with a
a. half-twist
b. Jackadoody brocket

The only problem with using an outline like this is it invites people to send back messages that have nothing in them but the code for the answer they want, such as


To avoid that, you can use a structure like:

Did you want to use a
left-handed thromblemeister
right-handed one with a half-twist
right-handed one with a Jackadoody brocket?

This invites people to cut-and-paste the exact, full thing they want:

> a right-handed one with a Jackadoody brocket?

Creative Punctuation

I tend to use a lot of punctuation in what I call "comic book style". Instead of saying:

I am very confused and a little upset. Why did
you give my report to Jack instead of Jill?

I would probably say:

?!?! Why did you give my report to Jack
instead of Jill?!?

The question mark is kind of shorthand for a furrowed brow or a "huh?". The exclamation mark is shorthand for amazement and possibly a scowl. The two together seem to mean astonishment.

There is a long and proud tradition of using punctuation as a place holder for swearing, e.g. That #%&#$(*! You will also sometimes see an asterisk in place of important letters, usually the vowel, e.g. That son of a b*tch! or That son of a b****! or very rarely That s*n of a b*tch!. (In actual practice, this form of self-censorship is rare; it is more common for people to either use the whole word or omit it completely.)

Beginner's Guide Email - Greetings-Signatures

Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Greetings and Signatures
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Every new medium develops its own protocols for opening and closing. Telephone conversations start with "Hello" and end with "Goodbye". Letters open with "Dear" and end with "Sincerely". Because email is so new, there aren't firm customs on how to open and close.

Many people do not give either a salutation or a signature. After all, while a letter can get separated from its envelope easily, it is difficult to separate an email message's body from its addressing information. The email message itself says who it is to and from.

However, that information might not be adequate for your needs. It might be difficult to find with some email reading software. It might be unclear or ambiguous. It might be inadequate for telling the receivers just why they are getting that message. Or, it might not convey the proper formality or status cues for your purposes.

I will give you my thoughts on openers and closers, but you need to think carefully about what you are trying to convey both explicitly and implicitly. You also need to take the culture and customs of all parties into consideration.


Salutations are tricky, especially if you are crossing cultures. Frequently, titles are different for men and women, and you may not be able to tell which you are addressing. The family name is first in some cultures and last in others. Honorifics may vary based on status or age. So don't feel bad if you have trouble figuring out which salutation to use: it is a difficult problem.

In the United States, it is an bad idea to use "Sir" or "Mr." unless you are absolutely certain that your correspondent is male. Similarly, it is probably safer to use "Ms." instead of "Miss" or "Mrs." unless you know the preference of the woman in question.

In the United States, using someone's first name is usually ok. Thus, you can usually get away with a "Dear" and the first name.

Dear Chris:

Here you are covered regardless of whether Chris is male or female. (Beware of using a diminutive if you aren't certain your correspondent uses it. It might rankle Judith to be called Judy; Robert might hate being called Bob.)
If you are addressing a group of people, you can say "Dear" plus the unifying attribute. For example:

Dear Project Managers:

Dear San Jose Lasers Fans:

Do You Even Need A Salutation?

Given that email is relatively informal, frequently (in the United States) there isn't a problem with dispensing with names and titles altogether, especially if you are in a higher status position than your correspondent:
Hello - I saw your web site and wanted to mention that I invented
the thromblemeister on Feb 29, 2403, *not* on Feb 28, 2402.

I usually use a simple "Hi" for people that I already know:
Hi - Are you interested in getting together for sushi next week?
I can bring all my wedding pictures and bore you to death. ;-)

"Good Morning" and "Good Afternoon" don't make a lot of sense with email, as the sun may have moved significantly by the time your correspondent gets around to it. "Good Day" sounds stilted to American ears (although it is common in other parts of the former British Empire). You may want to avoid "Greetings" in the United States: it reminds many people of the draft notices young men got during the Vietnam War.

Again, you must be careful about cultural differences. The East Coast of the United States is more formal than the West Coast (where I live). Germans are even more formal; they can work side-by-side for years and never get around to a first-name basis. Starting a message to Germany with Dear Hans might be a bad idea.


When I get email from strangers, I care more about what connection they have with me than how they address me. When you send email, particularly someone who doesn't know you, it would be good if you would immediately answer these questions:

* How did you learn of your correspondent?

* What do you want from your correspondent?

* Who are you?

* Why should your correspondent pay attention to you? (If you can't answer this question, you should wonder if you should even send the email.)

Putting some of that information in a signature is better than nowhere at all, but putting it at the top is better for several reasons:

* If there is a problem with the transmission of the email, the end is much more likely to get lost than the beginning.

* A lot of people get more than twenty messages per day, and so read them quickly. If you don't establish quickly who you are, your correspondent may delete your message before they get to the bottom.

* Your identity is an important clue to the context of the message.

Good answers to the questions can take several forms:

Dear Ms. Sherwood: I am an editor at Very Large Publishing Company, Inc. I
sat next to your husband on United last week, and he mentioned that you
are interested in publishing a book based on your email guide. I have
read your guide, and would be very interested in receiving a proposal from

My name is Dave Wilcox and I'm the legal counsel for Thromblemeisters
Direct, Inc. We are deeply disturbed at the aspersions you cast upon
us and on thromblemeisters in your email guide. Therefore, we
order you to immediately cease and desist using any reference
to thromblemeisters in your email guide. If you do not, we will be forced to
file suit against you or your descendants if and when we and/or
thromblemeisters come into existence.

Or even:
Hi - I am a novice email user and just read your email guide. I don't know
if you are the right person to ask or not, but do you know what the French word
for "Mister" is? If you can tell me the answer, I'll send you a funny postcard.

Some good friends of mine recently got email from my cousin for the first time. Unfortunately, not all of the email made it through. The message they got said only:

Dear Rich and Chris: I met you at Jim and Ducky's wedding.

But, because he identified where he knew Rich and Chris from immediately, it was enough information that they knew he was someone to pay attention to. They replied to him and communication is now going smoothly between them.


Many email programs allow you to set up a default signature to be included at the end of every message. Many people use these signatures as an easy way to give their name and alternate ways of reaching them. For example:
Hi - when did you want to go to lunch?

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
666 Beast Street
Styx, HI 77340
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice
+1 (959) 123-4568 FAX
snodwhistle@throbledirect.com W
becca@thromboqueen.net (personal)

Such an extensive amount of signature information in contrast to such a short question looks silly to me. I think much of the above signature is extraneous. If they got the email from you, they can reply by email, so don't need your FAX number or street address. (If they have to send a FAX or package, they can ask for addressing information.) They already have one email address in the message you sent, and don't need your other email address.

The name is perfectly reasonable to include, especially if

* Your email messages don't include your full name in the From: line. (Send yourself email to see if your name is there or not.)

* The name in the From: line doesn't match the name you actually use. (Christina might actually go by Chris, but her company might insist on using her full name as her email name.)

* The email account is shared by multiple people. (My husband and I have a joint email account, for example.)

The telephone number is also a reasonable thing to include - if you are willing to be interrupted by a phone call. Emotions are easier to convey over the phone, and some people prefer phone to email for all circumstances.

If the message is business related, including the company name is a reasonable thing to do - even if the message is going to someone else in the same company.

One thing that is missing from Rebecca P. Snodwhistle's signature, above, that I would like to see is her job title. Is she the vice-president of sales or the shipping clerk? That may have more of an influence on the correspondent than anything else.

So I would rewrite the above signature to be:

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
Chief Executive Officer, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice

That signature is still overkill for arranging lunch, but it isn't always convenient to switch between having your signature included or not.

Some people put things purely for entertainment in their signature: artwork, philosophical sayings, jokes, and/or quotations in their signature. This can be ok, but don't overdo it. A good heuristic is to keep your signature at or under five lines long.

After setting up a signature that is included automatically, it is easy to forget about it. (After all, your email software might not show it to you, or it might be so routine that you never look at it again.) So whenever a piece of contact information changes, make sure to revisit your signature to make sure that it is still up-to-date. And, if you have an entertainment piece in your signature, change it every once in a while. It wasn't as funny the fiftieth time your coworker saw it as it was the first time.

One final note on signatures: they are a good way to let your correspondent know that all of the message got transmitted properly. There is no body language to signal that you are "done talking" and, unfortunately, email transmissions sometimes get interrupted.


Many people put pretty separators - lines, horizontal bars, and so on - around their signatures. For example:

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle | CEO, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice | +1 (959) 123-4567 fax

These are very pretty to sighted people, but imagine what it would be like for people who are so visually challenged that they have their computer read their email to them: "hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen..."


If you are well-known to your correspondent, you can probably get away without including extra identification. In other cases, you should provide your correspondent with enough clues to figure out who you are, why you are writing, and why he or she should pay attention to you. Preferably, this information will be at the top of the message.

Greetings are difficult to do well, especially if you are crossing cultures and/or languages. In the United States, you can be pretty informal, but even in the U.S., you need to be careful that you aren't either making assumptions or using sensitive words.


Beginner's Guide Email - Intonation

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Intonation
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

The most difficult thing to convey in email is emotion. People frequently get in trouble for typing exactly what they would say out loud. Unfortunately, without the tone of voice as a to signal their emotion, it is easy to misinterpret their intent.

While you cannot make your voice higher or lower, louder or softer to denote emphasis, there are games you can play with text to convey vocal inflection and emotion.

Light Emphasis

If you want to give something mild emphasis, you should enclose it in asterisks. This is the moral equivalent of italics in a paper document.

Instead of:

I said that I was going to go last Thursday.

I *said* that I was going to go last Thursday.

I said that I was going to to go last *Thursday*.

Which of the above two you choose depends upon whether you are adamant about the commitment you made or adamant that you didn't mean Wednesday. (Restructuring the sentence to remove the ambiguity would be an even better idea.)
You can also capitalize the first letter only of words to give light emphasis:

While Bob may say that you should never turn it past
nine, this is not Cast In Stone. It will explode
if you turn it up to eleven, but anything under ten
should work just fine.

I tend to use first-capitals to refer to things that are somehow dogmatic or reverential. This is probably a cultural holdover from all the capital letters that are used in the English Bible. It might not translate to other languages or cultures.

Strong Emphasis

If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. Instead of:
> Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?

No, if you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
the motors and it might explode.

> Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?

NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
the motors and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!

Note that you should use capital letters sparingly. Just as loss of sight can lead to improved hearing, the relative lack of cues to emotion in email makes people hyper-sensitive to any cues that might be there. Thus, capital letters will convey the message that you are shouting.

It is totally inappropriate to use all capital letters in a situation where you are calm. Don't do this:


People will wince when they read that email.
>>EXTREME!!<< Emphasis

If you really want to emphasize something, you can go wild:
If you are late this time, I swear upon my mother's
grave that I will never, *never*, *NEVER*,
>>!!**NEVER**!!<< talk to you again.
Use this sparingly.

Mutter Equivalents

In person, there are a number of ways that you can indicate that a communication is private and not to be repeated. You can lower your voice, you can look to your right and to your left either with your eyes or with your whole head, and you can lean closer to the other person. While these obviously make it more difficult for someone to overhear, these signals are so ingrained that we might use them even if there is nobody around for miles. Unfortunately, lowering your voice and moving your body is hard to do in email.

I sometimes write what I really think and then write down the sanitized version:

My boss got fired I mean resigned today, which
*totally* sucks err.. will lead to enhanced
relations between Engineering and Test.

A friend of mine uses double parentheses to denote "inner voice", what in the theatre world is called an "aside":
My boss resigned ((got fired)) today
which is going to lead to enhanced
relations between Engineering and Test ((in
their dreams))

Something else that I will do sometimes to denote the "lowering of voice" is to type without any capital letters:
hey wendy!
guess what?

I GOT THE JOB!!!! :-D :-D !!

I should warn you that there is a minority that doesn't like the shortcuts I showed you. They argue that if Mark Twain could convey emotion without resorting to such artifice, then we should too. Well, I'm not as skilled a writer as Mark Twain, and usually don't have as many words to make my tone clear as he did. I believe that there is a greater danger of angering or offending someone by not using these shortcuts than there is of annoying someone by using them.


It is difficult for most people to express emotion well in a short message. Fortunately, you can use a number of textual tricks to help convey the emotion:
* Asterisks (for emphasis)
* Capital letters
* Punctuation
* Whitespace
* Lower-case letters

Beginner's Guide Email - Layout

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Page Layout
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Words on a computer screen look different than on paper, and usually people find it harder to read things on a screen than on paper. (I know several people who even print out their email to read it.) The screen's resolution is not as good as paper's, there is sometimes flicker, the font may be smaller, and/or the font may be ugly. Your recipient's email reader may also impose some constraints upon the formatting of the mail, and may not have the same capabilities as your email software.

This means that good email page layout is different from good paper document page layout.

Shorter Paragraphs

Frequently email messages will be read in a document window with scrollbars. While scrollbars are nice, it makes it harder to visually track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to only a few sentences apiece.

Line Length

Some software to read mail does not automatically wrap (adjust what words go on what line). This means that if there is a mismatch between your software's and your correspondent's in how they wrap lines, your correspondent may end up with a message that looks like this:

[envision this next sentence appearing on one single line of LONG text across your screen with no line breaks]

I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassembly ready; as soon as I get a decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go. Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed one first?

Furthermore, the "quoted-printable" encoding also contributes to the line-length problems. If a line is longer than 76 characters, it is split after the 75th character and the line ends with an equals sign. People whose email reading software can understand quoted-printable encoding will probably have the lines automatically reconstructed, but others will see ugly messages, like the following:

I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassemby ready; as soon as I get a=
decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go. Have you=
talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the=
left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed=
one first?

There are even a few email readers that truncate everything past the eightieth character. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

You should try to keep your lines under seventy characters long. Why seventy and not, say, seventy-six? Because you should leave a little room for the indentation or quote marks your correspondents may want if they need to quote pieces of your message in their replies.

Terser Prose

How many times when you were in school were you told to write a 20-page paper? Probably a lot, and you got penalized for being terse. This training is not appropriate for email. Keep it short. If they want more information, they can ask for it. (Also note that some of your correspondents may be charged by the kilobyte and/or have limits on how much disk space their email can use!)

If you are sending a report to many people, then you may need to put more detail into the email so that you aren't flooded with questions from everyone on the recipient list. (You should also ask yourself carefully if all the people really need to be on the list.)

The fewer the people there are on the recipient list, the shorter the message should be. Books to thousands of people are tens of thousands of words long. Speeches in front of large groups are thousands of words long. But you'd tune out someone at a party who said more than a hundred words at a time.

I try to keep everything on one "page". In most cases, this means twenty-five lines of text. (And yes, that means that this document is way, WAY too long for email!)


In summary, keep everything short. Keep your lines short, keep your paragraphs short, and keep the message short.

Beginner's Guide Email - SUMMARY

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email - Summary
by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Here, then, is my advice for good email style:

1. Provide your audience with adequate context:

* Use meaningful subject lines
* Quote the email to which you are responding
* Avoid pronouns

2. Be aware of page layout issues. Stick with:

* Short paragraphs
* Lines under seventy-five characters long
* Messages under twenty-five lines long
* Plain text

3. Find replacements for gestures and intonation:

* Smileys
* Asterisks
* Capital letters
* Typed-out vocalizations
* Whitespace
* Lower-case letters
* Creative punctuation

4. Be aware of what cues people will use to form impressions of you:

* Name
* Domain name
* Grammar, punctuation, and spelling
* Formality
* Signatures

Hopefully these suggestions will be useful to you as you start your emailing career! :-)


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