Sensible email

Writing sensible email messages contains a bunch of useful tips for writing email that gets read and gets the message through.

I’m a little surprised that my pet email peeve isn’t mentioned in the article or in the comments: top-posting, usually combined with quoting an entire message thread. A sure-fire way of making me annyoed. Just don’t do it.

Posted on September 22, 2005 in Quicklinks, Usability


  1. September 22, 2005 by Starlene Stewart

    Question for you re: top posting. I always use plain text but often receive emails in rich text or html. I have OE set up to reply in plain text, but sometimes when replying there is no easy way to create inline responses! Usually from people who have AOL. There is a vertical line along the side of the original reply and the only way to get in there and create inline responses is to use a different color/size/style font. Usually I end up hitting reply, sending the email to myself, which strips out that vertical line and places the “>” in place so that I can reply inline. Then I have to make sure to re-address the email! Any thoughts on an easier route?

  2. I fully agree with you about top posting, I hate it. The only problem is, I have to top post at work. I actually got in trouble for quoting correctly and told that top posting is the “company standard”, even though it’s nothing more than an ill-concieved convention.

    Another pet peeve of mine is people who write the entire message in the subject line. It often makes me jump through hoops just to read it when its too long to fit on one line.

    Starlene, although it’s good that you’ve configured OE to send plain text, you’re using a broken mail client. Switch to a descent one like Thunderbird and quoting, or fixing the quotes, is as easy as selecting “paste as quote” (or Ctrl+Shift+V)

  3. I dunno… when it comes to email, top-posting doesn’t seem like a large issue. I often already have a sense of the context of an email and am simply awaiting a response. Bottom posting actually means more effort to find the relevant data.

    The exception to this rule is in addressing multiple points, in which case, each point should be responded to below the quoted text.

    Newsgroup posting should always be bottom-posted as a message should be relevant enough when viewed on its own.

    Quoting entire messages, however, is a peeve of mine. There’s no need.

  4. The options are not simply “top-posting” and “bottom-posting,” Jonathan. As you suggest, interleaved responses to an original E-mail are the correct way to carry on a conversation. What you call bottom-posting is functionally identical to this case if the original text is edited down.

    Also, you haven’t quite explained how well your nonchalance about top-posting functions after a few bouts of top-posting top-posted messages.

  5. Whether a single response or multiple back and forth, the e-mail volley is relatively quick. Therefore, I haven’t lost enough context that would require me to refer to anything beyond one response. And even if I was confused, I’d just scroll down and read… it hasn’t really slowed me down.

  6. How did I know the moment I saw the title of this post that it would turn into a mini “top” vs. “bottom” vs. in-line reply war. Personally, I’m a vi man, emacs sucks!

  7. Im a advocate of top-quoting. I want to see the information i need quickly and want the quoted mail in the bottom as a reminder of what we were talking about.

    Since most of the “normal” users out there quote the whole mail, top-quoting as the only thing that works.

    And for the war-part: My dad is stronger than yours! ;-)

  8. Continuing the discussion: I agree totally with Jonathan here. Top-posting makes it easier to read the reply right away. If I need the context, I scroll down and read it, but usually I’m in the loop when it comes to knowing what the reply is about.

    But what isn’t mentioned here is that people’s habits, when it comes to this particular part, is that it depends on what software they use. Since Microsoft Outlook is so widely spread and its default is top-posting, I guess most people have gotten used to it.

    My two war cents: Roger, my web pages are heavier to load kb-wise! Oh wait, maybe that’s not a good thing… ;-)

  9. Top-posting is a standard among my business partners. I used to reply in-line as I considered it more useful to comment a specific issue. But then I realised why people do top-post:

    • Their email clients being most often Outlook or Outlook Express do not handle replys in the way one would expect. They default to top-posting and appending entire message with appropriate header (sender, date stamp, subj etc.)

    • Those clients don’t support any kind of threading the conversation as others do (I use The Bat! for example). The only way to achieve some kind of history is to keep it in the message body. The client simply imposes that.

    • In business relations it is important somtimes to have the ‘proof’ in one place. And with this in mind I find top-posting useful, consider a situation when you need to print the entire conversation, for example. Now I use it myself for my businnes needs.

    Oh, and my cat is more intelligent than yours ;)

  10. E-mail sucks, IE is better than Firefox, and Windows kicks the Macs ass! :D

  11. OMG, there really are top-posting fans out there. Top-posting distracts from core contents (are greetings and signatures content?), it generally slows reading down (in western countries, people read left-to-right and top-to-bottom!), it makes everything just slower (or are e-mails beamed to your client?). And if you really, really tell me that you can quickly jump through a twenty pages e-mail written and commented by ten top-posting freaks, well, I’ll slap you.

    So don’t be lazy, guys, edit your e-mails and be role models. Evangelize your companies. And apologize everytime you top-post again.

  12. Patric (comment 7), you’re mixing up terminology. “Top quoting”, as you said, means to leave the quote at the top and reply beneath. “Top posting”, on the other hand, seems to be what you’re ignorantly advocating.

    Greg (comment 9), Outlook and Outlook Express are to be considered extremely harmful, not least for the reasons given by your first 2 points. Their use must be abolished and they most certainly cannot be used as a reason to endorse top posting.

    consider a situation when you need to print the entire conversation, for example.

    That point fails when the discussion is not linear, which happens more often than not with multiple participants. eg. consider this scenario, assuming each user top posts:

    1. Person A initiates the thread.
    2. Persons B responds soon after.
    3. Much later, person C responds to A.
    4. Person D responds to C.

    Now, since message 2 was not responded to, attempting to print the entire thread by printing message 4 will fail. Also, because they were top posing, it requires scrolling down to find out to whom both C and D were responding and to give context to what is being said.

    Finally, top posting assumes that all recipients read each message in chronological order, which is simply not always the case and is most irritating on mailing lists, USENET and even global e-mail discussions at work. This issue is not at all helped by Outlook’s failure to support proper message threading.

  13. I think ‘top posting’ is just a description designed to make the concept look stupid. In reality it is ‘date descending’ order which works very well for most ordinary users. The new content is right at the top, easy to find and read, whilst the rest of the thread is in date descending order below. The entire thread is consistent, and as Greg commented above, in most business relationships, having the entire text of previous conversations is essential for proof of what was said.

    The phrase ‘top posting’ seems like just another web elitist response to people to do things differently.

    Perhaps it’s a Mac/Linux thing. Certainly I’m rather surprised that anyone would discuss the matter as the Windows/Outlook date descending works so well for so many people that it is irrelevant to discuss it. I know it’s trendy to knock Microsoft, but in some cases they get things absolutely right.

  14. Is all this really that important to you? I mostly second Greg and Peter, sadly my cat has died a while ago, so: My way to work is more fun than yours! Where emails are a conversation close to real time, and possibly 1-to-1, top posting is a quite natural MS-way to do it. Hit reply and there you are. It makes lots of sense where it’s a single question and answer thing. If it’s the mentioned content-heavy multi-questioned email, of course it makes sense to write inline, alternatively quote the original around your replies.

    Now what’s wrong with applying a concept where it makes sense? That’s what I don’t get about OS/mailreply/IKEA/whatever wars. It’s not an exclusive club, or is it? Most conversation make sense out of context anyway, in case order has failed.

    I’m waiting to get slapped by Jens now, but, is it down to the fact that I’m not that corporate or senior, that I don’t have to read through 20-pages emails very often until they have grown to that size with my active participation? Don’t mistake evangelize with patronize, oh, have I just thrown a stone into my glass house? My shards are harder to sweep away than yours, and I think I have to do my homework in learning about threaded emails now.

  15. If, as some contributors here suggest, top-posting is OK for an E-mail with a single question and answer, explain to me why I need to see the question again? I wrote it.

    Explain how top-posting works for actual conversations in which many facts are replied to within an E-mail.

    And, again, explain to me how top-posted top-posted E-mails n plies deep are actually usable or make any kind of sense whatsoever.

    If you use Outfukt, get the Outlook Quote Fix and be done with it.

  16. This one?

    If that’s what all of this is about, I think I didn’t understand the conversation, despite an improved order… This mainly fixes linebreaks into the right quoting format, for top posting, right? What does it help with inline/top quoting? I’m willing to learn.

  17. Sorry, couldn’t resist replying to the comment in correct, top posted manner ;-)

    I’m a little surprised that my pet email peeve isn’t mentioned in the article or in the comments: top-posting,

  18. I think both approaches have their place and choice should be commanded by their intended use.

    I wrote a bit more about this on my blog.

  19. September 23, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Maybe I’m just dumb, but top-posting is really confusing to me.

    I don’t dislike it to be elitist as some have suggested - I dislike it because it makes email a lot harder to read and comprehend.

  20. Lachlan (comment 12), all the reasons could be summarized as the absolute lack of responsibility when developing software that will be used by not aware users. That’s that simple. Need examples?

    • HTML email by default! Even for Usenet (OE 5, if I remember correctly). :E
    • Quoting with a vertical line, not ‘>’ (already mentioned here).
    • Not including email addresses in text only version of HTML email.
    • And the best of all - country specific prefixes to subject for replying and forwarding. This one is a real abuse. It amazes me someone could be so stupid to replace the standard ‘Re:’ and ‘Fw:’ with ‘Odp:’ and ‘PD:’ for Polish, and ‘Ref:’ for French (don’t remember the French replacement for ‘Fw:’).

    IMO, if MS did it right than most people would do it that way. I mean most part of computer users simply don’t know how to e.g. reply with quote - they just hit the button. The email client does the rest. However, MS sometimes happens to do sth right ;) I really like Win XP, for example.

    Back to topic, top-posting is useful for 1-to-1 conversation, and a large part of email communication is of that kind. Personally I prefer Usenet style replying (in-line). I store my mail threaded by topic, and this makes such a conversation similar to Usenet. Ideally, for a multithreaded conversation with more than 2 people involved, a Usenet style would be the best, IMO. But here we come back to the client issue.

  21. I’ve read most of these comments and to me this conversation seems a bit silly. If I receive a reply to an e-mail I sent to someone, I want to see exactly what the person replying has said at the top, that way I can quickly read their reply.

    If I understand it correctly (I’m sure someone will correct me if not), some people are advocating that the person replying to me should go through my e-mail, strip out anything that seems to not be relevant (at the time, it might be later!), then type their responses separately next to each of my questions. But this will mean me having to search through their reply to identify my bits, then theirs. Why not just have their reply in one lump, at the top, where I can read it quickly and respond?!

    Also, having the whole conversation in date descending order underneath the most recent reply at the top seems perfect. Say I need to find this conversion 3 or 4 months down the line, I can look back through everything that was said, un-edited. Many times before, I’ve found it very useful to find an old e-mail, and quote what someone said to me, even up to a year in the past, but if people had been deleting whatever they want from my e-mails this would be very difficult – did I say X, did someone delete it, who knows!

  22. Lachian, it’s hilarious that you say that the use of Outlook and Outlook Express “must be abolished.” Good luck with that.

    Top posting, as some others have said, can be a useful way of keeping the entire record of the conversation in a message, which may be useful to help others, such as those who have been cc’d, understand all of what has been said. It’s a matter of completeness vs. context—top post when you want a thread to be complete, and edit responses when you want to place questions and answers in closer-proximity context.

    People should sometimes edit responses, or can fire off quick top posts in others; they should follow the convention their colleagues use when possible, but use what is appropriate for each case. It’s a judgement call.

  23. But this will mean me having to search through their reply to identify my bits, then theirs.

    Distinguishing the quote from the reply is easy when using a descent e-mail clients that supports format=flowed. Many clients will, for example: replace the quote marks with coloured bars, format the quote in a different font-style and/or colour, or whatever else.

    top-posting is useful for 1-to-1 conversation, and a large part of email communication is of that kind.

    Many people read/send dozens, if not more, e-mails every day and, in some cases, it may take a few days for the recipient to read and respond. Proper quoting serves as a way for recipients to orient themselves and to recollect what has been said in that particular thread.

    Lachlan, it’s hilarious that you say that the use of Outlook and Outlook Express “must be abolished.” Good luck with that.

    Outlook is to e-mail clients, as current versions of IE are to web browsers - both are extremely harmful to e-mail and the web, respectively, and the use of both must be abolished.

    Lastly, as an analogy, consider a TV show that has continued on from the previous episode. These often begin with “Previously on [this show…]” and give a brief overview of past events. Top posting is like putting that (or, more acurately, the entire previous episode) at the end, where it is completely useless. If you want to see previous messages in the thread, look through your archives.

  24. September 27, 2005 by Adrian Bengtson

    My boss recently complianed that his e-mail software (Entourage on Mac) didn’t top post his signature. He said everyone else has their signature above the quote. I hadn’t thought about it before, for me signatures is supposed to be at the very end. But I guess this is what Outlook for Windows has changes.

    I do think top posting can be fine for those short simple replys or if the email is a terrible html-mess.

  25. Personally, I find that it depends entirely on context: the type of e-mail and its content, and the type of response(s) that are expected and necessary for the whole e-mail conversation.

    A little while ago, I sent out a really long e-mail to a bunch of people, asking them if they were interested in supporting something. Most of all of them replied in a Top-posting style, giving me their Yes-vote at the top with generally my entire e-mail quoted underneath it. That worked fine, because all I needed to know was whether they were in or out.

    One person (and one person only, out of 12 or so?) had some questions and responded to various bits of my e-mail. He did so in ordinary top quoting manner, quoting the relevant bit of my mail and adding his questions/responses below that, and this he did for 3-4 pieces. All the irrelevant parts of the mail were simply cut out.

    That worked fine, all of it. Now, however, if I were to be discussing details with any one of them and it would be a repeated back-and-forth process, I would instead go for a top Quoting approach instead of a top Posting one. Even if only one issue would remain unresolved and discussed, I would use top Quoting because it’s a constant back-and-forth process, in which case top Quoting simply works much better.

    For most of the e-mailing I do, however, top Posting works perfectly fine. Question, response, resolved. No need to see the bulk of your own e-mail first when you still know what you wrote (which really should be the case as there’s no history to remember, this being a fresh e-mail).

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