Word Crunchers, Etc.

E-Mail Netiquette

Vicky Vickers


The word netiquette is a marriage of two words, "net" and "etiquette". Net is a short form for Internet, while Webster's Third New International Dictionary describes etiquette as: "1. the forms required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life…, 2. an item of behaviour prescribed by rule or custom…". Netiquette was formed to create societal rules for behaviour on the internet. E-Mail netiquette is only one part of those "rules".

Electronic mail, or e-mail as it is commonly called, is an often abused form of communication. Habits are being formed that would never be acceptable in mailed or faxed correspondence. Most users treat e-mail very informally. While this is O.K. between friends, for business or mass communication (such as listservs) some basic "netiquette" needs to be observed.


  • No capital letters: I find it really difficult to read something like "i went to victoria to visit the hudsons bay company". This doesn't happen often, but I feel it shows laziness and gives the receiver a feeling that they are not important enough for the sender to find the extra energy required to use the shift key.

  • Spelling errors: Some e-mail programs, e.g. Eudora Pro, have built in spell-checkers, but most people don't bother to use them for their e-mail, including me. Most of us would never think of sending off an letter or a fax without spell-checking it, but seldom spell-check our e-mail. This leads at times to some quite hilarious errors. Again, while this may be fine "between friends", it is not acceptable in a business or mass communication sense. A simple spelling error could lose you that all important job!

  • Lack of proof-reading: I must admit I am guilty of this one. However, I am more careful, when e-mailing business correspondence, to read the message over once or twice before sending it. One of the most common errors is making a change to a sentence without removing one of the previously used words. This leaves an unneeded word hanging around in the middle of the sentence, thereby confusing the receiver.

  • Use of all capitals: This is actually rude, as it looks like the sender is shouting. While this may be necessary for one word (or very occasionally for a whole sentence) in order to make a point, using it for the whole message is not acceptable. Maybe, like the first point, it is a laziness to use the shift key?

  • Long signatures: Anything over five lines is bragging! Complicated graphics in the signature are also not appreciated. Keep your signature short and snappy, and make sure it includes your phone number so people can contact you the old-fashioned way if they wish. One thing I enjoy in people's signatures is a saying, as long as they change it occasionally!

  • Out-dated subject lines: Often, over the course of a back and forth communication between two persons or on a listserv, the original subject disappears and a new one takes its place. This can be very confusing unless you change the subject line when the subject changes.

  • Unasked for attachments: Most people don't like to have to spend time downloading attachments they haven't asked for and don't want. Don't send out attachments unless someone has requested it or you have asked their permission in advance. Especially don't send attachments to a listserv!

  • Chain Letters: It's unfortunate this strange form of communication had to travel from the world of snail mail to the Internet. Keep in mind that most people don't like it so don't send it!

  • Forwarding too many >>>s: Once a message has been forwarded twice, it acquires too many greater than (>) symbols, sometimes causing extra returns to appear, making the message very difficult to wade through. If you are forwarding something which you think your receiver may also wish to forward, copy and paste it into the new message to avoid the dreaded >>s from appearing. Then place a short underscore line (e.g. _____) between your introductory comments and the message you're forwarding.

  • Wrong date or time: Recently, I discovered a message way back at the beginning of my in-mailbox (an area I seldom visit), which was dated August 25, 1985. Fortunately, it wasn't important, but I have no idea when I received it and the people who sent it probably wonder why I didn't reply. On VMUG's listserv, I sometimes end up reading a reply to message before I have seen the original message because one of the them has the wrong date and/or time. The date and time on the messages you send are determined by the clock on your computer, so ensure it's set correctly.

  • No word wrap: Have you ever received a message where there is a long line followed by a short line, followed by a long line, etc.? This makes the message very difficult to read and also seem to be almost twice as long as it really is. This can usually be fixed by the sender activating the word wrap option on their e-mail software.

  • Strange abbreviations: FYI (for your information) and ASAP (as soon as possible) are fairly well known abbreviations and quite acceptable to use. Other abbreviations, such as BTW (by the way) and IMHO (in my humble opinion) are not so well known, so you need to be careful where (and to whom) you send them. In private messages, it would be acceptable to use abbreviations as long as you state their meaning the first time you use them. However, these kinds of abbreviations are confusing to people on a listserv, especially as there are always new members joining.

  • Quoting whole messages: This is a most annoying habit. Often the receiver has to wade through a long message to find the answer (or answers) to their original communication buried at the very end! See below for some tips on replying to e-mail messages.

  • Spamming: Unsolicited commercial e-mail advertising, also called spam, is totally unacceptable and could also cause your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to delete your account.

  • Flaming: Negative comments expressed publicly on a listserv or news group are called flaming and is unacceptable behaviour! Occasionally, a listserv member (or members) feel that a posting is inappropriate and they will publicly (i.e. on the listserv) tell the sender off. Not only is this embarrassing to the original sender, who perhaps didn't know that their message would be considered inappropriate, it could cause other listserv members to fear posting messages in case they are subjected to the same embarrassment. A message sent privately to the original sender to express your feelings is a more acceptable way to handle the situation.


  • Cut original message down: Unless the message you're replying to is very short, cut most of it out, leaving just enough (e.g. a short paragraph or a couple of sentences) so the receiver knows which message you're referring to. Leaving the whole message in a reply is a strange problem, as people don't normally quote the whole of a letter received by mail or fax when replying to it.

  • Reply at the beginning: Putting your reply before the item quoted from the previous message makes it much easier to find. Sometimes, I use a short underscore line between my reply and the part of the original message I'm quoting.

  • Leave a space: Leaving a blank line between the item quoted and your answer makes it much easier for the receiver to find your reply, especially when you are replying to a message with several points or comments. If you are writing a message with a lot of questions in it, put each question or comment in a separate paragraph to make it easier for the person to reply to each point separately. I have received replies which looked at first glance as if nothing had been added to my original message. A closer look revealed that there were short answers nestled cozily under each of my original paragraphs, with no space between. Sometimes senders start an answer following right after the end of the last sentence in the paragraph. These habits make it very difficult for the receiver to find the senders comments.


    E-mail is, to most of us, a very new means of communications. We all need to learn how to use it properly, politely and effectively. However, used properly, it's possibilities as a communication tool are almost limitless. And, it is so quick and inexpensive to use. It will be the major communication method of the future, and not so distant a future as some would think.


    Historians fear one problem from the proliferation of e-mail between family members. Letters which used to pass between members of a family, on paper, often contained a lot of details on family history, as well as their involvement in and reaction to world events. Now that families are starting to communicate by e-mail, this correspondence is not being kept. While writing a book over 10 years ago about his great-grandfather (the first mine manager in Nanaimo for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1852), my father used family correspondence passed over to him by his mother as part of his research materials. It would have been difficult to write the book without those letters. If you want to preserve some of your family history for future generations, print and file family related e-mail messages. Your great grandchildren may bless you for it someday.


    This article was published in the March 1998 issue of the Victoria Macintosh Users Group's monthly newsletter "MACtalk" in Vicky's column "VMUG On-Line".

    Vicky Vickers is the owner of Word Crunchers, Etc. which specializes in website design and HTML training. She is a past-president (1994-6) and former webmaster (1995-8) of Victoria Macintosh Users Group (VMUG). She also founded and was the first president (1996) of the Web Enthusiasts Association of Victoria (WEAV).

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