Email Etiquette

By Ali Hale

If you work in an office, you probably write emails every day – to colleagues, to your boss, to clients. Even if you’re still at college, you’ll need to email your lecturers once in a while (maybe to plead for an essay extension, or to ask for help) – and many employers now expect resumes and cover letters to be sent by email.

So, being able to write a professional, business-like email is a crucial skill. Daily Writing Tips has already covered the email subject line, but the body of your message also matters.

1. Start with a salutation

Your email should open by addressing the person you’re writing to. Sure, you can get away with leaving out the salutation when you’re dashing off an email to your friend, but business-like messages should begin with:

  • Dear Mr Jones, or Dear Professor Smith, (for someone you don’t know well, especially if they’re a superior)
  • Dear Joe, or Dear Mandy, (if you have a working relationship with the person)

It’s fine to use “Hi Joe”, “Hello Joe” or just the name followed by a comma (“Joe,”) if you know the person well – writing “Dear Joe” to one of your team-mates will look odd!

2. Write in short paragraphs

Get straight to the point – don’t waste time waffling. Split your email into two to four short paragraphs, each one dealing with a single idea. Consider using bullet-points for extra clarity, perhaps if you are:

  • Listing several questions for the recipient to answer
  • Suggesting a number of alternative options
  • Explaining the steps that you’ll be carrying out

Put a double line break, rather than an indent (tab), between paragraphs.

3. Stick to one topic

If you need to write to someone about several different issues (for example, if you’re giving your boss an update on Project X, asking him for a review meeting to discuss a payrise, and telling him that you’ve got a doctor’s appointment on Friday), then don’t put them all in the same email. It’s hard for people to keep track of different email threads and conversations if topics are jumbled up.

4. Use capitals appropriately

Emails should follow the same rules of punctuation as other writing. Capitals are often misused. In particular, you should:

  • Never write a whole sentence (or worse, a whole email) in capitals
  • Always capitalise “I” and the first letter of proper nouns (names)
  • Capitalise acronymns (USA, BBC, RSPCA)
  • Always start sentences with a capital letter.

This makes your email easier to read: try retyping one of the emails you’ve received in ALL CAPS or all lower case, and see how much harder it is to follow!

5. Sign off the email

For short internal company emails, you can get away with just putting a double space after your last paragraph then typing your name. If you’re writing a more formal email, though, it’s essential to close it appropriately.

  • Use Yours sincerely, (when you know the name of your addressee) and Yours faithfully, (when you’ve addressed it to “Dear Sir/Madam”) for very formal emails such as job applications.
  • Use Best regards, or Kind regards, in most other situations.
  • Even when writing to people you know well, it’s polite to sign off with something such as “All the best,” “Take care,” or “Have a nice day,” before typing your name.

6. Use a sensible email signature

Hopefully this is common sense – but don’t cram your email signature with quotes from your favourite TV show, motivational speaker or witty friend. Do include your name, email address, telephone number and postal address (where appropriate) – obviously, your company may have some guidelines on these.

It makes it easy for your correspondents to find your contact details: they don’t need to root through for the first message you sent them, but can just look in the footer of any of your emails.

Putting it all together

Compare the following two job applications. The content of the emails are identical – but who would you give the job to?

i’ve attached my resume i would be grateful if you could read it and get back to me at your earliest convenience. i have all the experience you are looking for – i’ve worked in a customer-facing environment for three years, i am competent with ms office and i enjoy working as part of a team. thanks for your time

Or

Dear Sir/Madam,

I’ve attached my resume. I would be grateful if you could read it and get back to me at your earliest convenience. I have all the experience you are looking for:

  • I’ve worked in a customer-facing environment for three years
  • I am competent with MS office
  • I enjoy working as part of a team

Thanks for your time.

Yours faithfully,

Joe Bloggs

Have you ever received a really badly written email? Or have you ever been told you need to brush up your own email writing? Share your email etiquette horror stories – and any of your tips – in the comments!

Recommended for you: « »



70 Responses to “Email Etiquette”

  • BreAnna Davis R.

    Dear grandma and papa

    i love being your granddaughter ooh by the way this is breanna i did this on a assessment i just want to send it to you i love you grandma and papa because you are the greatest grandma and papa i were had love you.

    sincerely ,

    BreAnna Davis R.

  • BreAnna Davis R.

    sorry that was for my grandma

  • BreAnna Davis R.

    Dear Flvs.net

    i love being your granddaughter ooh by the way this is breanna i did this on a assessment i just want to send it to you i love you grandma and papa

    sincerely ,

    BreAnna Davis R.

  • Aaron Toponce

    I don’t think you understand the definition of irony, but that’s not important here. Consider the following consequences of your actions, because of your top-posting behavior:

    1. Messages double, triple, and quadruple in size for each reply to the thread. As a result, email inboxes grow exponentially. Not only locally, but remotely on the server. Disk space becomes a concern for busy mail servers.
    2. As outlined above, for MUAs that indent previous replies, on mobile clients, or small screen sizes, the character count per lines becomes less and less, until each line is only a single character in width, making it nearly impossible to read the message.
    3. For those on slow internet connections (yes, “broadband” isn’t ubiquitous yet), or with bandwidth caps, downloading the messages can become troublesome.
    4. For those just joining the thread, because someone added them midway through, their reading experience ends up like this:

    A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
    Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
    A: Top-posting.
    Q: What is the most annoying thing in e-mail?

    Have you ever stopped to think about top-posting? Email and usenet are the only places you’ll find it. Replies on blogs, such as this post, are bottom posted. Replies on BBSs and forums are bottom posted. Replies on Twitter, Facebook, IRC, IM, SMS, and every other internet medium are bottom posted. Except for email and usenet. And somehow, that’s become acceptable.

    With regards to Gmail collapsing the bottom replies, that is just the case of a broken MUA. Further, I have bottom posted for years, and for those who read my replies in the Gmail MUA, they have never had a problem reading them. Google doesn’t collapse the reply. You don’t have to open up anything.

    Lastly, I’m not trying to convince anyone. Only show them the error of their ways by top-posting. People will do as they wish. I don’t care. So, keep top-posting.

  • Kev

    Aaron, I find it somewhat ironic that you have a name of Toponce, given your hatred of top posting.
    I for one will ALWAYS top post.

    If I’m replying to the sender, he Knows what he’s written, he doesn’t need to read it again, likewise when he replies to me.

    When you’re having a conversation do you repeat back to the other person what he’s just said to you? Of course not, and email conversations are no different. Yes leave his original comments in, especially if your reply is not immediate, but don’t make him re-read what he’s just written.

    Another issue is when reading emails in web based forums such as google groups. Only the top of the email is shown, the rest is displayed as “hidden text”, you have to open up the entire email before you can see what the person has written.

    Even worse when emails are part of a mailing list, with several people independently replying to the original email. If one bottom posted to each reply, you’d end up with a dozen emails, each of which made you read the original email first.

    Nothing you have written will convince me otherwise, bottom posting is the most annoying, time wasting and inconsiderate way to reply to an email!!

    Oh – and as to your reference to mobile devices, top posting ensures that the original email is NOT indented, thus making it EASIER to read!

  • Aaron Toponce

    Back again. I thought I would share another reason why top-posting email sucks. If you have a mobile device to read your email, such as an iPhone or Android, then top-posting clearly becomes a major issue. The problem is that each previous post is nested, or indented. And because no one trims when they top post, if the thread is long, then the nesting gets intense.

    I only have about 140 characters width when in landscape mode in my email client. If each previous post is nested by 10 characters on each side (which seems to be the case for Outlook mail), then after 7 replies, every email after that only has one character per line. ONE CHARACTER PER LINE.

    Please, tell me that’s readable.

    You don’t have this problem when you trim, and bottom posting encourages proper trimming. Then, you have readable mail on mobile devices.

  • kyt

    How do you address your boss in a mail,when you communicate everyday through email.
    Am a female and he is an older man.

  • kuku666

    Considerably, the article is in reality the greatest on this noteworthy topic. I agree with your conclusions and will eagerly watch forward to your next updates. Saying cheers will not just be sufficient, for the wonderful clarity inside your writing. I will immediately grab your rss feed to stay privy of any updates!

  • John Mactorn

    I feel that you are quite right about your artical. I have a school course and is using this info to complete it.

  • mazza

    i am part of a group of 80 professional, diverse persons….who mainly use personal, as against company email addresses
    when i send out an email to all the members of that group….. i always send it “””bcc”””because i thought that it was impolite as well as risky to do otherwise……..but; one of the group wants me to send everything””””cc”””; so that they can email direct to another of the group…i believe this is not correct as well as dodgy, as i consider i do not have the right to enclose a persons’ private email address; unless they specifically tell me to….surely this group are not like family members or facebook
    i would appreciate your advice….many thanks

  • Kamran Gill

    very useful, please share some business email samples

  • Tim K

    This website is awsome! It actualy showed me some stuff!

  • Aaron Toponce

    I’ll address each of your issues here:

    You must keep in mind that some people actually delete or archive e-mails they think are no longer relevant (be it personal preference or company storage policy).

    Not exactly sure what that has to do with top-posting versus bottom-posting, but okay. Personally, I have never deleted an email since 2004, personal or corporate. I just don’t see the need, when I have plenty of storage space. But then again, I have no idea what that has to do with deleting mail.

    What if e-mails have been exchanged several times before needing to be forwarded? As you trim each reply are you doing so on the assumption that the conversation will not need to be forwarded?

    All the more reason the mail should be trimmed, and only the appropriate context left in play. Ask yourself, honestly- when was the last time you read the entire thread of an entirely top-posted conversation? 99% of the time, the only data that matters, is the data in the most recent mail, or the attachment that came with the forward, not the 300 previous mails leading up to it.

    Reading a printed copy of a top-posted discussion would be little different to reading a series of letters from most to least recent. A reader need only read as far back as they need to.

    You seem to miss the point about reading. Threaded conversations have always been posted such that the oldest conversation is on top with the newest conversation on bottom, following in that order, chronologically. Email is the only medium on the web that breaks this standard convention. Even the blog comments we are posting, are bottom-posted.

    It sounds like your ideals stem from forum and Usenet where threaded conversations are the norm.

    I guess you’re not familiar with your history, then. It was the boon of web-based email that began breaking the Internet standard of bottom-posting. Then Microsoft decided to continue breaking historical tradition by allowing Outlook to top-post by default. Just about every-other email client bottom-posts. Yet, because of these two phenomena, top-posting some how becomes acceptable. Interesting.

    Are you an e-mail administrator? Have you spoken to one in the past two years or so? Data storage is cheap and plain text does not take up much space.

    Yes, actually. I’m a Unix/Linux system administrator, and have been for many years. Follow through with my blog, and you can learn of the many things I’ve discovered as an admin. Sure, data storage is cheap. So, I guess it’s okay if you pay for it then. After all, it’s only a few cents per GB.

    Oh, and most email clients these days don’t default to plain text. They default to HTML. So, each message is easily 20x the size it should be in plain text. With a corporate environment of only 200 users, disk space gets chewed through in no time.

    Sure, there are quotas, or I could force them to store it on their laptop/desktop drives, but then we still run into the problem with disk space, don’t we? And with people not trimming massive amounts of top-posted HTML mail, the disk gets chewed.

    But then again, you don’t mind paying for it, as we already established. Disk is cheap.

    This article is about e-mail etiquette indented to be applied in formal situations.

    All the more reason you should bottom-post. Top-posting is rude and inconsiderate. You assume that I want to read your reply before the context. This is analogous to interrupting a conversation, before allowing someone to frame their argument.

    I believe Stephen Covey said it best in his 7 Habits: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” With bottom-posting, you’re following this core principle. With top-posting, you’re just plain inconsiderate.

    Top-posting should not be allowed in any environment, formal or otherwise, minus the rare exceptions I’ve mentioned earlier.

  • Scott

    @Aaron Toponce

    I have to disagree with your opinion that the use of top-posting in e-mail is unacceptable. In some circumstances I would agree that top-posting is less appropriate and that it may sometimes be necessary to trim excess quoted copy. You must keep in mind that some people actually delete or archive e-mails they think are no longer relevant (be it personal preference or company storage policy).

    You say top-posting is only appropriate when forwarding a conversation. What if e-mails have been exchanged several times before needing to be forwarded? As you trim each reply are you doing so on the assumption that the conversation will not need to be forwarded? Especially in the corporate environment it can be imperative that the entire context be available when forwarding, not just what Alan Middleman and Sally Inbetween thought was pertinent at the time.

    The example of top-posting you provided is flawed. I believe that well written replies should include the context so that the reader would only need to refer to the quoted copy should further detail be required. If e-mails were poorly written per your example then, yes, top-posting would be awkward to read.

    Reading a printed copy of a top-posted discussion would be little different to reading a series of letters from most to least recent. A reader need only read as far back as they need to.

    Your attitude towards the e-mail client used is short sighted. In the corporate environment it is often not the users choice as to which e-mail client they use. Mobile devices also limit a users choice of e-mail client. Thus one must keep in mind that not everyone can enjoy threaded views or even an e-mail client that is not “crappy”. It sounds like your ideals stem from forum and Usenet where threaded conversations are the norm.

    Are you an e-mail administrator? Have you spoken to one in the past two years or so? Data storage is cheap and plain text does not take up much space. Regardless, any modern e-mail storage system is capable of enforcing quotas and the user is responsible for managing their quota usage. Should a users e-mails all be top-quoted in their entirety they could simply delete or archive the previous e-mails.

    This article is about e-mail etiquette indented to be applied in formal situations. When e-mailing your mate about the new episode of Glee you’re so excited about you can be as informal as you like. You can bottom-post, reply without context or do as you please. As you would be aware what your friend would and would not find acceptable. In formal situations, however, I believe it is best and most accepted to top-post.

  • Emma

    Oliver,
    I am as well English/ British “subject”. I don’t think that when someone says something like that to you it is insincere, but rather a way of showing that they respect you. How do you find it really that insincere?

  • Oliver

    In your ‘improved’ version of the job-interview email, you sadly fall into a common error with “MS office”. As a software product, Office is a proper noun, and this is capitalised.

    I would also like to point out to any American readers wishing to communicate with British subjects how incredible insincere expressions such as ‘have a nice day’ seem to us at the bottom of emails.

  • kim cook

    That you should just be able to say something than putting it in fancy words so I think I proofed my point.

  • Keith

    I find the guideline to writing an e-mail useful when I am unsure of the appropriate format/ style. I have written several e-mails according to the guideline. Thanks again for its usefulness and easy-to-access availability.

  • Ann

    I honestly like the tips of how to E-mail, but some points I disagree with. Although I disagree with the ending and signature, I think that they are just clearly trying to tell you, the most high-classed way to send an e-mail. You don’t even have to do as they say! It’s just some things that some other people who don’t know one thing about e-mailing that need to how to use it properly!

  • ken hook

    so what all you guys are mean

  • Mr redskull

    Great questions. I’d like to see more.

  • Madhav

    Dear All:

    E-mail is nothing but a reflection of ourselves in words, personality, thoughts and character. It is very important to ensure that the emails being sent, business or personal has certain amount of ethics to follow.

    An example can be demonstrated with the following mail being sent to Mr. John, after the visit to his office, following a complaint about a product.

    It is an acceptable practise to start the email with:

    (a) Dear Dr. John (A known person whom we are thanking after our visit to his office)
    (b) Dear Sir (An unknown business prospect),
    (c) Dear John (working level colleague)
    (d) Hi John (a pal)

    Always go down two spaces after the salutation (leaves a line in between) and start with a capital.

    Thank you for the courtesy extended, during my visit to your office on….

    Body of the subject:

    I trust my visit to your office, regading the failures of our product is now resolved and it has only been a matter of improper usage by the operator, attributed to lack of training. I have therefore recommended a visit by my Engineer to train the operator………..

    I once again thank you and look forward to your continued patronage of our product line.

    The signing off,

    Yours truly.

    for ABC Company

  • Yuri FUKASAWA

    Thanks to this chip about e-mail etiquette, I could realize my mistakes. I often used the casual salutation when I sent an e-mail to my college professor.
    Next time, I will pay attention to the form of the e-mail more and never make a mistake like this.
    I think that ignorance is sometimes fear, so everyone who do not know about the e-mail etiquette well shoud know about this important tip.

  • sri

    Hi,
    Send me the latest business updates email or good emails

    Thanks

  • Aaron Toponce

    @Cynthia (posted 2 years ago)- Your logic for top-posting is flawed, and it shows you don’t know how to use your email client (or you’re using a crappy one at that).

    People normally read English text left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Consider the following example:

    A: Trim the message, leaving appropriate context, then reply below.
    Q: How should I reply to email then?
    A: No.
    Q: Should I include quotations after my reply?
    A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
    Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
    A: Top-posting.
    Q: What is the most annoying thing in email?

    Easy to read right? After all, we normally read left-to-right, bottom-to-top. WRONG! This sort of behavior is arrogant, rude, sloppy and lazy. It’s completely unacceptable.

    You mention that you want all of the information in a single email, rather than searching through multiple emails to get to the information you need. Do you realize that you’re duplication, triplicating and quadruplicating, etc the information in the email thread?

    For every reply that does not get trimmed, a consequence of top-posting, the information becomes increasingly redundant, and the size of your message grows and grows. In corporate email environments, where as you state, you get upwards of 500 messages per day, this pisses off the email administrator, because people who top-post are just chewing through hard drive space wastefully.

    I’m assuming you are using Outlook to manage your mail. This is unfortunate, because it does not display the email in a threaded view. If you used a more capable client, getting to the bits of information that was important to you would take less time than it does in Outlook. I use Thunderbird for most of my email communication, and I choose to show my emails in a threaded view. It’s too easy to get to the information I want, because I can see from a higher level, who replied to who, and where the information should be. This is a pain in the butt with Outlook, because it makes no effort to show how the email thread looks. So I don’t blame you for getting frustrated. You’re using a crappy client.

    Really, the only time top-posting is appropriate, is when you are forwarding an email, and you want to alert the recipient to what you are forwarding. Beyond that, there usually isn’t a good reason to top-post a reply.

    Top-posting isn’t a new change, and it’s certainly not good. It’s been around since the days of email first showed up 40 years ago, and it’s a nasty virus, one that isn’t easily cured. If Outlook bottom-posted email replies by default, I’m sure you would have a much different view on the topic.

  • Katie L.

    Thanks for this post! I have been researching on how to send proper e-mails! It really helped.
    Katie L.

  • Hospital Doctors Queensland

    Great tips. I am not a native English speaker and so I often leave some mistakes in my mails for which I had to suffer a lot in my professional life. I have learned a lot to improve and your post is also a great treat for me. Thanks for a nice post. Will visit again for more help.

  • selva kannan

    Hi, i read ur tips and follow it. And one more thing kindly send some sample emails for understand fully.

    regards

    ur follwer
    selva….

  • Chandler

    Thanks for your information! I need it for an assignment for school.

  • Ian

    A question;

    after entering the persons name, followed by a comma, space down two lines (to leave a one line gap), then continue the message do you start with a capital letter or, as it is a contuation from the comma after the name, do you continue in lower case?
    e.g.
    Dear Soandso,

    do I start this line with a capital? If so why? What is the rule here?

    Yours Sincerely,
    Ian

Leave a comment: