Quoting Email

   12 July 2007, early morning

When you reply to an email from which you have quoted some text, you essentially have two choices with respect to where to position the text of your reply: above or below the portion of the message you are quoting. If you used the Internet before being informed of its existence by CNN, chances are you would be in the habit of replying to emails by posting below the quoted text. This was certainly the way things were done on BBSes and in newsgroups. Nowadays, the common practice seems to be to include the entire email thread quoted below your own comments, which is called top-posting.

Jon Gruber isn’t a fan of the way Mail quotes emails. Yesterday he posted a script which lets you bottom-post in Apple Mail:

My first must-fix annoyance is that Mail’s Reply feature is hard-wired to encourage top-posting, an uncouth and illiterate practice.

Harsh words. He follows this up with a post on top-posting:

The fundamental source of poor email style is the practice of quoting the entire message you’re replying to. If that’s what you do, then it doesn’t matter whether you put your response at the top or bottom. In fact, if you’re going to quote the entire message, top-posting probably is better. But both are poor form.

I agree with Gruber, but even I usually top-post — it is the default way to quote in both Apple Mail, as noted above, and Gmail. (I usually trim all but the last reply to an email so as to avoid sending replies with 18 prior emails nested to the point of being unreadable.) Most people I know, irrespective of how geeky they are, or how long they have been on the net, top-post nowadays.

I’m not quite sure when people switched their habits, but there certainly has been a shift. I have emails from high school where people are bottom-posting, but then by the time I’m in University people have switched to top-posting. There are two reasons I can think of for the change. First, people started using Microsoft Outlook and other email clients that promote top-posting; Pine, Claris Emailer, and other older clients encouraged bottom-posting. Secondly, and I suspect more importantly, email went from being a way to send meaningful letters electronically to being a way to chat slowly online. The emails I have from high school are for the most part longer and more interesting than the emails I send and receive today. I would say the vast majority of emails I get today are no longer than 3 sentences. The differences between an IM conversation I might have with a friend and an email exchange are slight at best. In such a case, bottom quoting really doesn’t detract from what is being said.

I think I’m going to switch my habits and start top-quoting. We’ll see how well that goes.

 

Comments

  1. I used to top quote because that was what Hotmail did by default. I don’t like it because I do like having the entire long email thread there, and scrolling to the bottom of a new email everytime was a bitch. My habit only changed when Outlook and Gmail became regular fixtures in my life. That is to say, I just do whatever it does by default, and don’t care all that much anyway.

    In general, I don’t write replies without context. Just as we were raised to rephrase short answer questions as part of our answers in school, I make sure that it’s clear what I am talking about whether or not the original context is present.

  2. I think including the whole email thread is important in a business context, since sometimes you end up getting sucked into a thread that was taking place before you showed up. In Newsgroups and BBSes this is a non-issues, since the other messages are all there for people to see. Like I said, I don’t mind having the entire previous email after my response, but I really don’t like it when people include entire nested conversations you were already a part of.

Don't be shy, you can comment too!

 
Some things to keep in mind: You can style comments using Textile. In particular, *text* will get turned into text and _text_ will get turned into text. You can post a link using the command "linktext":link, so something like "google":http://www.google.com will get turned in to google. I may erase off-topic comments, or edit poorly formatted comments; I do this very rarely.