Strong opinions, weakly held

The new email etiquette

David of Ruby on Rails fame has a blog post about the ongoing difficulties in avoiding using top replies when you’re emailing. As an old school geek, I have similar urges. To me, you should trim the email you’re replying to and write your answers beneath the specific lines in your reply.

Unfortunately, only old school geeks adhere to that custom these days, and as he points out, the people who make email software don’t want to cooperate. Not only do nearly all email clients default to the “top reply” style, but it seems like most email clients expect incoming email to be structured that way as well. Heck, Gmail generally wants to hide quoted parts of emails entirely so that you don’t have to look at them. That makes sense if people are replying and just keeping the full test of the old email at the bottom, but not if the quoted text is carefully selected by the person replying to the email.

So the question is whether there’s any point at all in the old etiquette. Have what used to be good email manners now become old fashioned?


  1. I try to be a good old-school quoter, but it really seems like a losing battle. Most people these days don’t even know /why/ they’re quoting the message they’re replying to. They just let the email program do it for them. The technology facilitates even worse offenses by making it easy to reply with the original attachments as well as quotes, so that a one-line reply to a message has the original x-megabyte file attached too!

  2. Ten years ago when I was using Pine for email, I was a big fan of “inline” replies — type your reply to a particular point below the line where the point was made in the original email, etc. Outlook even used to (does it still?) make this easy with color coding and inserting the replier’s initials, etc.

    Nowadays, though, top replies have become the default, and my brain has trained itself to that default for better or worse. I do try to truncate especially long chains when I reply, though. Just to keep file size down.

  3. I have resisted top-replying to this day, abetted by Eudora, which makes quoting/trimming simple and lets me set a custom reply head (“On Tuesday at 11:45, Brad said:”) or not.

    Worse even than repliers who quote the entire message are those who reply with no quote at all, such that their one- or two-word message (“Yes”, “Sure, why not?” &c) makes no sense on its own.

  4. etiquette is what you get when good manners become old fashioned

  5. Depending on how I want to reply, sometimes a top-post makes sense and other times a line-by-line reply makes sense. If I’m writing a general response to a relatively long email, I’ll top-post. If I’m responding point-by-point to what someone has said, I’ll reply inline. Sometimes, when replying inline, I’ll leave the original note below my signature to provide context, which, in effect, means that I sometimes use both approaches in the same note. Usually though, I use one approach or the other as the need dictates.

    Bottom line: I do not agree that the inline approach is somehow “the one true way”.

  6. I find that with so many unnecessary emails coming in these days, I really prefer to just have the response at the top, so I can read it quickly and get on with my life.

    If it’s something where I need more context, I just scroll down and glance through the thread briefly. Really, I find this to be more efficient, considering what type of communication email is used for now.

  7. I don’t understand top posters either, if you’re writing enough that you don’t need the original context of the message, you don’t need to include it, and if you aren’t then quoted text helps prevent the all too common issue where someone didn’t read the email to the bottom and responds “I agree” when there’s, say, a question in the original…

    But to folks like Justin, inline commenting should rarely have more than two or three lines of quoted context in any given block. So I don’t get the “read it quickly” issue.

  8. I’d tend to agree with Jonathan that there’s no one true way. What’s important above all else is that the writer of the message take into account what’s going to be easiest for the reader (which I guess is pretty much a definition of “etiquette”).

    So where top quoting might be best if it’ll be useful for the reader to be able to peruse a long thread that he/she wasn’t involved in from the start, that same approach is certainly very poor etiquette when posting to a mailing list where some people read only digests.

  9. I’m in the “it depends” camp. If it’s a social email with a lot of news and chat, you need to intersperse your replies just to keep the conversational logic going. If it’s a pointed business email, you may just need to add your input at the top (and keep the original for context, truncating for sanity). Sometimes, however, it’s critical to excise the one point out of many that you are responding to, in order to make sense of a change of direction or correction (much like you might quote a line of a lengthy comment in order to respond just to that point in your own additional comment in the thread).

    I’ve run into an additional techno-problem since our office changed from Eudora to Outlook, which is that some emails are impossible to reply to with interpolated text — if I insert a line break in those, it’s formatted as though it were part of the original (same color, and/or line down the left edge). I presume it has something to do with the way the original email was formatted, but I haven’t been able to sort it out. If back and forth is critical, I actually have to use “forward” rather than “reply” and then reinsert the sender’s address (and fix the subject line). Obviously, with that level of ridiculousness, I have to be pretty motivated…


  10. Actually, Gmail only hides some quotes. It’s usually pretty good about not hiding inline quotes from my experience.

  11. The prevalence of preview panes and brief content summaries in many “modern” mailers tipped me over to doing top replies for one-liners. It leats the recipient process the result quickly without having to open the message and scroll.

  12. Once upon a time, I only used Pine (sometimes I still do use pine) or the unix mail reader or even a VMS mail system. They all used different editors, although you could change that to your favorite system editor if you wanted to. I used to default to the replies after the portion of the message, because that was the standard, and I had no problems doing this.

    These days, I mostly use Gmail for personal stuff, and work seems to default to Outlook for various reasons.

    I have no idea how to cut/paste whole lines in gmail without using the mouse. There might be a way, I haven’t figured it out. I’m way too lazy to use the mouse that much when I’m typing, so I don’t edit the body of the message in Gmail or Outlook unless specifically asked to.

    Maybe you can configure them to use a decent editor, I don’t know, and a quick look at gmail options doesn’t give me a button to click. When Gmail lets you use a decent editor (and the options of pop3 to another mail client or what have you don’t attract me, I check email from many computers with the gmail web interface) I’ll be more inclined to go back to editing out lines and embedding replies.

    As I said, it’s possible this magically exists and I’m just not smart enough to find it, if so please let me know.

  13. I agree that the preview pane / popup-summary defaults in Outlook have made top-replies the logical adaptation in that environment, and Outlook dominates most other mail clients in installed base, so there you are.

    I would also point out that after a few top-replies, an Outlook-email’s format (content-blocks-in-reverse-chronological-order) begins to resemble a weblog page — which is not necessarily desirable, just an interesting convergence of forms.

  14. Work: I top reply, because that’s what everybody else is doing, and it keeps the context, as others have mentioned.

    Private personal mail: don’t quote anything, because we either remember what we wrote to each other or we can check our sent folder.

    Mailing lists and discussion forums: here’s where it really gets interesting. Inliners are fighting a losing battle, I’m afraid.

    My related pet peeves:

    • People who try to reply inline or at the bottom but get it wrong, typing their text in the same paragraph as the part they are replying to, so that you can’t see what’s new.

    • People who complain about long off-topic posts to a mailing list, yet they quote the entire long message below their reply.

  15. Here’s another vote for “It depends.” In a discussion group, I usually trim the quote and bottom post. In one-to-one communication, I usually either top post or, if it’s a rapid-fire conversation, don’t quote at all. The best would be if everyone used a messaging client that could toggle the quoted text (in a received message) on and off — that way the receiver gets control of this prickly issue. Pine is an examle of such a client (i.e., using the quote-suppression-threshold variable along with the H command).

  16. I prefer inline (still try to use Pine these days, and even stripped outlook back to text-only messages.)

    Whats annoying me even more, are all these incredibly long [(il)legal] disclaimers at the end of the signatures.

    I miss the old times, when a sig with more than five lines was a big no-no… 🙂

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