Email Quoting

Like many people, I deal with a lot of email every day. Something that makes it much easier to deal with is when people quote properly. Here are some guidelines (originally prepared for 139.177 / 119.177) for effective email quoting.

Quoting works best if you work with plain text email and not HTML – many people prefer this, anyway, so it’s a good idea to stick with it unless you have a good reason not to. There are many varients of good quoting styles, only one of which is presented here. It doesn’t really matter which you use, as long as you use one.

Why you should quote properly

To put it most briefly, RFC1855 (Netiquette Guidelines) states that:

If you are sending a reply to a message or a posting be sure you summarize
the original at the top of the message, or include just enough text of the
original to give a context. This will make sure readers understand when
they start to read your response.

Firstly, you must quote in some way – even if it is top-posting, that’s better than not quoting at all. It may be some time before the message is dealt with, or since the original was read, so having the (relevant portions of the) original message immediately accessible is essential. It also makes it easier to understand which parts of your reply are responses to which parts of the original message(s), avoiding confusion and mistakes.

You should try not to top-post, however. This is when you write your reply above the quoted original message. This is seriously destructive to mailing-list digests, where multiple levels of top-posting are difficult to skip. When mailing to just about any address other than personal ones, it is difficult to tell if some users may be receiving the message as a digest, so you should assume that someone is. You can get away with top-posting in personal one-to-one email, but should always avoid it otherwise.

Other reasons to bottom-post include:

  • In normal conversations, one does not answer to something that has not yet been said. So replying at the top, whilst the original message is at the bottom is unclear.
  • In Western society, a book is normally read from top to bottom. Top-posting forces one to stray from this convention: reading some at the top, skipping to the bottom to read the question, and going back to the top to continue. This annoyance increases more than linearly with the number of top-posts in the message.
  • It helps with correct identification of the person to whom you’re replying.
  • It helps with correct attribution of the quoted text to the original author and of the new text to you (like academic style citing).
  • It helps keep multi-person discussions clear and easy to understand.

Examples

To make it clear, here are good & bad examples. Firstly, here is a message that we will reply to:

Hi,

I'm having trouble with exercise 7.6.  I can't seem to understand what
the point of doing a Says/Does table for this exercise is, and how it
will help.  I'm also not sure how much I need to know about tofu.

Thanks,
Erik

Below is an example of top-posting. The complete original message is quoted and the response is at the top. This makes the message hard to read.

Hi Erik,

A Says/Does column will both help you understand what the author is
trying to say, and help you summarise the article.

You don't need to know anything about tofu for the article, it's just
there as an example.

Cheers,
Peter

Erik wrote:
> Hi,
>
> I'm having trouble with exercise 7.6.  I can't seem to understand what
> the point of doing a Says/Does table for this exercise is, and how it
> will help.  I'm also not sure how much I need to know about tofu.
>
> Thanks,
> Erik

The correct response would look something like this:

[Erik]
> I'm having trouble with exercise 7.6.  I can't seem to understand what
> the point of doing a Says/Does table for this exercise is, and how it
> will help.

A Says/Does column will both help you understand what the author is
trying to say, and help you summarise the article.

> I'm also not sure how much I need to know about tofu.

You don't need to know anything about tofu for the article, it's just
there as an example.

Cheers,
Peter

Note that the responses directly follow the questions, and any unnecessary text has been cut. It is often useful to summarise a question or previous discussion. To do this, put your summarisation between square brackets []:

[Erik, confused about Says/Does tables]

A Says/Does column will both help you understand what the author is
trying to say, and help you summarise the article.

> I'm also not sure how much I need to know about tofu.

You don't need to know anything about tofu for the article, it's just
there as an example.

Cheers,
Peter

With multiple correspondents, good quoting is even more important.

[Erik]
>> I'm having trouble with exercise 7.6.  I can't seem to understand what
>> the point of doing a Says/Does table for this exercise is, and how it
>> will help.

[Peter]
> A Says/Does column will both help you understand what the author is
> trying to say, and help you summarise the article.

It will also help you when it comes time to write a summary of the article,
as you can use the 'Does' portion to figure out which are the most
important bits, needing to be in the summary.  You can then use the 'Says'
portion to form the basis of your first draft of the summary.

Cheers,
Sally

Those greater-than signs [section added 2nd March 2006]
Traditionally, quoted material was prefixed with greater-than signs (or some other symbol) to distinguish between it and regular text. Ideally, each participant in the conversation has a different number of signs (and the number of signs indicates the order of the mesages).

A problem with this is when lines wrap around and not every line starts with the character (although with careful composition it is easy enough to avoid this). A modern mail client (e.g. Apple’s Mail) instead suppresses the greater-than characters and shows some other symbol (e.g. a vertical line) instead. More importantly, if you quote using the mailer’s quoting system, it will use the “format=flowed” system to indicate which text is quoted. So you should always do that rather than manually typing greater-than signs and putting in returns where possible.

Unfortunately, not that many mailers support this feature. In particular, Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Outlook Express do not (although Hotmail does, so it’s possible that Outlook and Outlook Express will in the future). If you’re using Mozilla Mail (and Thunderbird?), Eudora, M2 (Opera’s mail client), or Apple’s Mail, then you’re fine, however.

Other resources

Terms

In case you are not familiar with some of the terms used above, here are links to some explanations (thanks to Wikipedia):

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9 responses to this post.

  1. […] TonyAndrewMeyer presents an impassioned ode to bottom-posting as the embodiment of all that is noble, true, good and excellent in email communication. Technorati Tags: bottom-posting, email […]

  2. […] So Tim Gaden over at Hawk Wings (a pretty decent, and pretty oft updated Apple Mail.app tips site) – went and posted an epistle on the value of “top-posting” – the practice of responding to an email above the previous sender’s message. As this (the “top posting”, not the epistle) encroaches on what many consider good taste, and might even violate an RFC – you might expect he got some responses, even an ode to bottom posting. […]

  3. In a ‘normal’ conversation I don’t repeat everything that has been said to me before giving an answer. I find bottom posting stupid when I am having a one-on-one discussion with someone. For example I just emailed a geek with my contact details. He emails back with his interspersed about mine! That is stupid, I know what I wrote.

  4. Email isn’t a “normal conversion”. If you want a “normal conversation”, use Skype.

    How many “normal conversations” do you have at once? Dozens? Hundreds?

    How long do your “normal conversations” last? Days? Weeks? Months?

    There are good arguments for top posting and not posting (not generally good enough, IMO, but still good arguments). Silly comments like yours don’t really help.

  5. Oh, and did not know about it. Thanks for the information …

  6. Posted by Joel on March 18, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Bottom posting annoys the crap out of me in emails. Why would I want to scroll all the way to the end of a (possibly extremely long) chain of messages just to get the new information? As the previous commenter mentioned, “I know what I wrote.” I don’t need to have my comments reiterated to understand the other person’s reply.

    I understand the value of bottom-posting on a forum, but ONLY if people quote only the relevant sections of previous posts. Even then, I’m not convinced of the value. Who skips 3/4ths of the way into a discussion and starts reading there? Generally one reads from the beginning of a thread, so why include the last four posts worth of material before your reply? I then have to pass all this (now useless) information to get to the new information I want.

    Again, if you’re quoting specific sections, obviously you should put your new material beneath the old material. But if you’re just going to copy the entire previous message, I would *much* prefer not to waste my time trying to find where the quote ends and the new reply begins.

  7. I wrote this a very long time ago. If I wrote it today, I’d use “interspersed quoting”, not “bottom quoting”. You *shouldn’t* have to scroll to the end of a long chain of messages. You should read the context for the most recent comment (almost always shorter than the comment itself, typically a line or two).

    “I know what I wrote” really doesn’t work when you deal in huge amounts of email, most of which is not one-to-one.

    Who starts 3/4ths of the way into a discussion? Many people. In particular, Google doesn’t generally find the start of a discussion, it finds some most-relevant part in the middle.

    For clarification, this was never intended as a recommendation to quote an entire message, at the top, or at the bottom (there’s never a point in doing that – go back to your archive if you need the original). I even give examples of summarising and cutting in the examples. I’d make that clearer if I was writing this fresh today.

  8. “Appreciate you discussing, great blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.”

  9. […] email formatting is temperamental at best and the same isn’t always true for everyone on the receiving end of your message. One way to make […]

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