Last update: Wed Sep 13 18:45:00 MET DST 2000

HOWTO Edit Messages - Message Editing and Quoting Guide (with Examples)

was: Editing EMail - A Guide with Examples

Email and Usenet have become a popular form of conversation. Email will not replace paper mail (just like CDs won't replace books) but it certainly is a media with its own kind of form. Just as paper mail (aka snail mail) and answering machines it has pros and cons - and you should be aware of them.

You can make Email look like paper mail - but that does not make it the same. If you basically want to send a picture with your own handwriting and coffee stains etc then you should get a piece of paper and use snail mail. Sure, you could write a mail, scan it in and send it in encoded form via email - but that requires a scanner, additional software and most of all - knowledge. If you don't have any of these then you should ask someone to send it as a FAX for you.

The appearance of paper mail usually is fixed and can also have some color to it. But, mind you, the appearance of email depends on the kind of program used to show it.

Email is usually replied to with a mail program which allows you to easily include the previous text in a quoted form - and the quoted text can be used to give a direct reference to your additional text. Quoting is a big advantage of email replies - use it!

Furthermore, please consider that your text just might be read by a visually impaired ("blind") person. Simply formatting and removal of unnecessary text can speed up their reading a *lot*. So, for them - edit your text. Thank you!


The Advantage of Quoting | Basic Errors | Thesis and Antithesis | Examples | Hello and goodbye | Note | Plea | Further Reading

The Advantage of Quoting

Why use quoting in replies? Simple - you can remind your addressee of what he wrote - and you can directly give an answer to the posed question or comment on a discussed subject. This makes an email message more like a phone call where you usually answer directly to a question. It makes email more lively and easier to read:


> You said you wrote a guide on email style - where is it? The address of the page is Note that every line of the quoted text is prefixed with "> " (two characters - a greater than sign followed by a space) and that there is an empty line following the quoted text. Thus you get seperate paragraphs - one paragraph of quoted text and one paragraph of reply. This is helpful as most editors can easily operate on a paragraph, such as reformatting the text with a different maximum of line length (VIM-5: gqip) or simply delete it (VIM: dip).

However, people do not seem to know how to deal with it. Many mails are hard to read as they suffer from basic errors:

Basic Errors in Email Replies

Furthermore, some mailers mangle the mail as well:

Thesis and Antithesis

Some typical "flame wars" (disputes) in a nutshell:

Sven says: True - and best compression takes zero space - therefore I simply delete these mails.

Someone says: Long lines are not a problems because you have a computer which can easily reformat these lines to fit your screen width.
Sven says: Unfortunately you do not always have access to required programs in every environment - especially when you need a printed copy of the mail.

Someone says: Empty lines in sentences are just another kind of whitespace which can easily be removed.
Sven says: Empty lines within sentences naturally cut them up. They will look cut up - whether printed on screen or on paper. Also, empty lines are usually used to separate paragraphs, making it impossible for programs to "bridge the gap".

No Refs required
Someone says: A reference to the previous mail is not required as there are mail programs which can easily find text in previous mails.
Sven says: No reference to the previous mail makes it *very* hard to find that previous mail. Not everyone uses a sophisticated mail program which can retrieve previous mail according to text. And even a program needs *some* infomation about previous mail - the best info is the message id which should *always* be included in a reply with the "In-Reply-To:" line in the header. Quoting parts of the related text of the previous mail is even better as you need not scan the previous mail for related text.

Someone says: It does not matter how and what you quote.
Sven says: It does not matter how and what you say.

fullheader quote
Someone says: A forwarded mail should always be included with full header.
Sven says: Are you forwarding the mail because of its content or because you want to show others header lines you do not understand? Or do you want to report a mail transport problem?

Someone says: B1g s1gnatur3s R kewl!!1!
Sven says: (a) So is the "delete" command of my mailer. (b) So are mail filters. Consider yourself killfiled. (c) Grow up!

Someone says: Quoting text should always be appended in full and after the signature.
Sven asks: Do you write PS text a lot, too? Do you also send back a xerox copy of all your letters?

Examples - the BAD the GOOD and the UGLY

Let me explain these things in detail giving a few examples:

BAD: Capital Letters Only

Here is a sample letter from someone using only capital letters: From: JOEDOE@VAX.LUSER.COM To: Subject: WHADDAYA MEAN - LOWER CASE? I AM NOT ABLE TO WRITE IN LOWERCASE LETTERS AS I COULD NOT BE BOTHERED TO FIND THE LOWERCASE KEY ON THIS MACHINE YET. JOEDOE Well, text in all capital letters is hard to read - especially if you read it as if the person is shouting at you.

BAD: Lines Longer than 80 Characters

Long lines usually mean that they are longer than 80 characters (not counting tabs). Most terminals can hold 80 characters - but no more. Therefore they have to be wrapped at the right edge (after column 80) producing very bad spacing on the screen:

From: To: Subject: My screen is wider than your screen Why should I restrict myself to 80 columns when there is enough space on my monitor to show all? Really, I cannot understand what you are complaining about - after all the prices for 21" monitors have fallen so much now that you can afford one for your computer at home and one for your laptop. Our company makes great monitors and you can buy them from us for only a few thousand dollars. Mr. BigScreen So Mr. BigScreen does not care. But it's easy to see that such a text looks better wrapped to 80 columns: From: To: Subject: Re: My screen is wider than your screen > I wonder what you'll say when you have to use an 80 column terminal. Well, since the last crash at Wall Street I have had to sell both my 21" monitors and my laptop. I am now using the PC of a friend who just has a 9" display and now I can see only 80 columns at my terminal. It has been a sad experience but now I appreciate getting mails that are wrapped such that I can read them without reformatting them. Mr. BigScreen on 80 column terminal Gee, that's better, isn't it? (Sorry about that crash, Mr. BigScreen!)

BAD: Empty Lines in Sentences

Empty lines seperate paragraphs - not sentences! It's so simple - and yet so hard to teach: From: To: Subject: How do I edit text? Dear Mr. Guckes Thank you for you letter explaining how to use an editor program to prepare text for sending as E-Mail via the Internet. We would like to ask you blah blah blah and would like to hear from you again soon. Yours sincerely Ms. Emily Newbie Secretary at Newbie Inc. This is a typical letter from people who think everyone is using Windows and that windows are usually one meter wide and four feet high. Well, those empty lines don't get lost and actually add up (surprise!). Moreover, you cannot see where a paragraph ends as every non-empty line is its own paragraph because it is followed by an empty line.

Thank God there are some people out there you seem to know what they are doing.

BAD: Missing Reference and/or No Quoted Text

From: To: Subject: Editing text with VIM Hi! Thank you for hint on VIM - it's a great editor! I read the helpfile with ":help gq" and found that "gqip" reformats the current paragraph. It's amazing that the quotation prefix is preserved. It's real fast and I like it a lot. However, I could not find the other text you told me about. Can you send me a copy? Well, my secretary still has a lot to learn. It took me half a year to train her to make coffee. Next year she'll probably take a course or two at writing letters on *real* paper... Guy LeBig (Boss) Well, that text is a lot better. However, there is no reference to my mail and it has no quoted text so I don't know which text I referred him to. (Remember - there may have been more than just one email between me and him.) Thus I cannot send him the desired text without digging up a copy of my mail or asking him again. And if neither he nor I have a copy of it then we both won't know what we were talking about. Therefore - quoting pays!

BAD: HTMLized Text

And then there is one feature that annoys the hell out of those whose mailers have neither support for viewing such mails: HTMLized mails. [981110]

Especially Netscape and Outlook (two very popular Windows mail clients... and remember, most people use Windows, unfortunately) seem to think that HTML email is so likely to save the world that it should be the default.

Usually this feature inserts so many HTML commands (tags) that it is impossible to read the text within it. And then you find that the mailer itself can view its own HTML additions properly. And rarely ever does the HTML improve the text itself even when viewed with an appropriate mailer.

Some mailers can send the HTMLized text to the web browser of your choice - but have you ever tried to start Netscape on a slow machine just for reading a few lines of text? It's annoying to say the least. And a good reason to not bother others with it.

Furthermore, the additonal HTML makes it harder to print emails and adds at least the same amount of data to your email log. This simply makes for less efficient storage, as HTML encoding is additional overhead.

Worst of all, some mailers seem to think that the ultimate solution to everyone's problems is to send the message as BOTH text and HTML. Now perhaps I'm being pedantic, but how does sending over DOUBLE the original message make for a better system? Simply, it doesn't.

Fortunately, both Outlook and Netscape Messenger have this feature as options and actually allow you to send messages as text only. So if you should use either of these programs (or another one that has this kewl feature) then please have mercy on the "presentationally challenged" people - and turn off that feature. Thank you!

Pine4 now has native support for HTML, but version 3 didn't, So even when you receive mail from a fellow Pine user - check his version first before you send him email. Unfortunately, Pine does not identify itself with a "User-Agent:" header line to make it easy to see, so you need to look at the Message-ID line and figure it out for yourself. (But that's actually another item for yet another rant. ;-)

BAD: Quoting Too Much

Quoting is nice, but some people tend to overdo it. One of these things is "SuperCite" which basically indents every quoted line with the first word of the sender's (full) name:

From: To: Subject: Super Cite is super cool >>>>> "Sven" == Sven Guckes <> writes: Sven> > Sven> Couldn't you please quote with "> "? Sven> > Sven> It would make reformatting the text easier. Sven> > I don't do that. It takes too much time for me. Sven> > Besides, SuperCite is cool. Sven> It just takes a command to reformat the text. Sven> And it thus allows for further quite levels. Well, I don't know the command. Why should I? Superman As you can see, this form of citation does not allow for many levels of quoting unless the lines are kept short.

But one of the worst forms of over-quoting is the "full quote":

BAD: Full Quote

Although quoting is good some people just overdo it by quoting everything. Quite often I get mails with my previous mail fully quoted but not edited:

From: To: Subject: Re: full quote - who cares > From: > To: > Subject: Re: full quote - who cares > > Hello, again! > > Please don't quote in full - but *edit* your mails. > > Sven I have a 10 Gig disk - don't you? Careless Actually, this is still a "short" example of what happens - some people quote all those Received lines, too. :-(

This both wastes bandwidth *and* time as I have to reread the full text just to find out what it was all about. You can guess that this makes my mail log a *lot* bigger.

I do have a script to weed header lines from mail - but it's a simple script, so it cannot decide whether it should strip them, as quoted header lines in a mail can be used as an example of the discussion, or whether they were just carelessly quoted.

GOOD: Terse Summary

Email discussion tends to deviate to various topics. Cutting down on the quoted text may lose the thread of thought and that's when you should insert a few words to recall the subject. Therefore try to summarize the previous text with a few words or try give the quoted text a headline:

[chain emails and spams] > why don't you just delete those mails and be done with it? simple - I feel I can save the world from spams and I must report those offenders to every police station on the planet. Anti-Spam Well, here the topic is depicted with a few words at the beginning - good. My text has been trimmed down to just quote my question thus saving on bandwith and mail log size. Very well! But even though this person's efforts are for a good cause I'd suggest decaf coffee and the use of a (mail) filter.

BAD: Full Quote with Unrelated Response

The "full quote": Quoting Sven Guckes: > blah blah blah > blah blah blah > blah blah blah > blah blah blah > > more blah blah blah > more blah blah blah > more blah blah blah I don't get it. Please explain in more detail! JoeDoe -- ARGH! Not even does the person say what he does not understand - but he even sends back a full quote.

Now what could I do? Send back a full quote myself and ask for clarification? No, this would be against my principles at it would just waste bandwidth. So I just send a note asking to reread my mail. Unfortunately these people usually do not keep a mail log, either. *sigh*

BAD: Full Quote After Signature

Have you ever wonderd that signatures are usually at the bottom of a paper? Well, then you might be a PINE user: Hi! What is pico? PineApple -- > To delete lines in pico you type ... > [detailed explanation here] > > Sven As you can see here, the user of PINE answered by writing text at the very start, placing the quoted text *after* his signature. Most users of PINE are easily identified by just that - "quote after sig". The reason for this probably is that they do not want to use the style of "quote some text and answer it right away" due to their ignorance of PINEs setup options and the limitations of the standard editor, pico.

The option that PINE users seem to be missing is the badly chosen default for the option "signature-at-bottom" which is to place signatures *before* the quoted text. This can be a good thing when there is lots to quote - but usually there isn't. Anyway, this setting can easily be changed (see Setup->Config->signature-at-bottom).

Thus PINE users get put into the editor with the cursor at the start before their signature and the quoted text after the signature.

PINE's default setup gives them the editor "pico" to compose their texts. (Btw, Pico is distributed PINE - and only with PINE!) Pico does not have many features - and that's *the* feature! Moving text requires to set the start of a text block, then move to the end and mark it, then delete the marked block, move to another postition and finally insert the text again. The hard part is moving around as pico does not have many comamnds for this. So moving text can take a lot of time and effort as you cannot jump around easily. As a result, quoted text hardly ever gets broken up, leaving a solid block of quoted text. And that's *bad*, PINE users!

Remember: A powerful editor can give users the possiblity to perform a complex operation within a few keystrokes - but ignorant users will write bad texts no matter what. Good documentation and help by an experienced user can help a lot, but the user himself must still decide on what to send.

BAD: Fully Forwarded Mails

When do you forward a mail and when do you bounce it? Do you know? Well, you should!

The command "forward" is implemented differently with mailers. Some take the whole mail and include it in the body - unquoted, some quote it, and some weed out the header.

Whatever mailer you have - please delete the stuff that is not interesting! Most header lines are not interesting. And you need not send the whole mail. Edit, edit edit!!

Some people manage to even quote even more than the body of the mail. I get full headers, undeleted corrected lines, signatures with quotes, ascii graphics - all the stuff that usually is unnecessary:

From: To: Subject: Hey, look! >From!spam Fri Nov 1 00:00:00 1996 >Return-Path: <> >Received: by (/\=-/\ Smail3.1.41.5 #42.42) >id <foobar42-0815BRD>; Fri, 1 Nov 96 00:00 MET >Received: by (8.6.13/TeleCom) >id TRALALA1; Fri, 1 Nov 1996 00:00:00 -0000 >Date: Fri, 1 Nov 1996 00:00:00 -0000 >From: (spam Spam SPAM) >Message-Id: <> >To: (Die Torfnase) >Subject: Good Times Virus >Organization: Virus Spam Inc >Status: RO > >Thought you might like to know... > >Apparently, a new computer virus has been engineered by a user of >America Online that is unparalleled in its destructive capability. >Other, more well-known viruses such as Stoned, Airwolf, and >Michaelangelo pale in comparison to the prospects of this >newest creation by a warped mentality. > >What makes this virus so terrifying is the fact that no program >needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It >can be spread through the existing e-mail systems of the InterNet. > >Luckily, there is one sure means of detecting what is now known >as the "Good Times" virus. [...] Torfnase -- This is my signature and my |<00l S1g!!1! I am against putting my name and addresses in my signature because I want to protect my data. Support fri speach!!!! What should I look at here? Does this person expect any repsonse? Just what was the reason to send this, anyway?

By the way, if you don't know what the "Good Times Virus" is - well, it's a hoax. Please read the following pages:

Good Times Virus Hoax FAQ

Computer-Viren, die keine sind (in German) [...,000503]
Lots and lots of info about computer viri which are simply hoaxes.
Author: Frank Ziemann

BAD: Bad Orthography

Some people write as if they don't care whether they want to be understood. It does not matter to them how words are written as long as anyone can figure it out by taking the time to decipher them in a finite time. And some even do it on purpose because they think it makes them funny: From: To: Subject: spel checka? Yo, there!!1! I dunt car3e if haf spelled anyth1n wrong cuz U w1ll underastnd redin ma repliez carefull enuf. 1 dont hafza t1me to check ma mails with a spel checa becoz I must send more each dsay tahn 1 recief! dont have a COW maaaaaaaaaaaan B1ff I wonder if this person know what spell checkers have been invented for. Is it worth the time to argue with these people? Well, if such a mail will be rejected by /dev/null because it is too good to dump then I will take the time to reply to it.

BAD: MIME and Enriched Text

Multimedia is in. It's a buzz word that makes PR people drool and salesmen wet their pants. However, multimedia mails are often misunderstood to be "cool".

The purpose of MIME mails are to structure included information - not to send every little text in multipart form:

From: To: Subject: [todo]

Hello and Goodbye

How formal is email? Do you just say "hi" or do the rules of official business mail apply? Hey - you decide!

Well, here is my view on this: My email address is at a university. We are not very formal around here. We usually just say "Hi!" - and that's it.

With sesond and further replies I will use "Hello, again!" to indicate that I have replied before.

When I write reply in German I will say "Hallo!", though.

And only when I know the person personally (or when I have exchanged a lot of emails) I'll use the name after the hello, too:


        Hallo, Ute!

BAD: Big Signatures

An extensive explanation is on the
"Signature and Alt.Fan.Warlord FAQ":


    My Plea

    "Edit your reply! Use quoting - but don't overdo it!" Thanks! :-)

    Further Reading

    Spam Is Not the Worst of It - Email etiquette and related gripes [000901]
    This lists about 20 annoyances with examples and an additional "annoyance meter". A fun read.
    Author: Unquiet Minds

    Wie zitiere ich im Usenet? [000821]
    A HOWTO on quoting - in German.
    Author: Dirk Nimmich

    Emily Postnews [961028]
    "Emily Postnews, foremost authority on proper net behaviour, gives her advice on how to act on the net." A classical text on Email etiquette. Translated versions available in French, German, Italian, and Dutch.
    Author: Brad Templeton.

    "E-Mail Etiquette" [961028]
    Hints about style, abbreviations, smilies, salutations, signatures, threads, quoting the relevant, privacy, flames, addressing with other nets, and spams.

    "Business Netiquette International" [981006]
    Some rules to follow with business email. Author: Frederick Pearce

    "FAQ: What is quoting?" [000821]
    Authors: Vidar Andreassen, Jan Ingvoldstad, Arve Løken, Lars Syrstad


    Additional ranting by: Anthony Di Pietro 981110


    Quotes by readers of this guide:
        "Alas, I am guilty guilty guilty of overquoting!  I also jaywalk alot in NY.
         I'll give up the overquoting, but the jaywalking is an addiction! :)"
        --Adam Brothers [980115]


    This text was written by
    Sven Guckes
    Additions, corrections, and more examples are very very welcome!

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    Created:     Sat Dec 16 00:00:00 MET 1995
    Last update: Mon Aug 21 12:00:00 MET DST 2000