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Quoting: Bottom Posting

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The most heated debate regarding the format of electronic messages is the one about how to arrange quoted material and your response to it in replies. In just about any newsgroup or mailing list, whether the intended subject matter is cats or football, the "Great Top or Bottom Posting Debate" has flared up, producing "religious wars" that are akin to the fictional war in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels over which side of an egg to crack.

For convenience, and because those are the terms used most commonly to describe the two methods when they come under debate, I am referring to the two styles as "top posting" and "bottom posting". These terms, however, aren't quite accurate where e-mail is concerned, as "posting" is really the proper terminology for newsgroups; you "post" a newsgroup message, but you "write" or "send" an e-mail message. However, newsgroup debates have so dominated the discussion of this issue that I can't help but use newsgroup-centric terminology. Also, as I will explain soon, "bottom posting" is only accurate in describing the special case where there is only one point being replied to in a message, and thus the reply is beneath all of the quoted material. In the more general case, there are several points being replied to and the replies are interspersed, so that "interleaved posting" (or "interleaved quoting") is a more appropriate term. I still use "bottom posting", however, in symmetry to the opposing style of "top posting". Finally, it's possible to flip the terms over and name the practices based on the position of the quote rather than the reply, so that "top posting" becomes "bottom quoting", and "bottom posting" becomes "top quoting". But it becomes pretty confusing if both sets of terms are in simultaneous use. (And people start messing up and saying the opposite of what they really mean, like using "top quoting" when they really mean "top posting".) For polemical purposes, though, the more vociferous supporters of each side of this debate might wish to associate their opponent with a term containing "bottom", so that they can be likened to "bottom feeders". This is a cheap shot, however, which I'm avoiding; the terminology I use here actually puts my preferred side on the "bottom"!

The Style of Bottom Posting

The concept of bottom posting is very simple. Quote the original material you're replying to first, and then put your response beneath it, so that the answer follows the question (instead of preceding it as on the game show Jeopardy! -- one of the terms for the opposite top posting style is "Jeopardy-style posting"). But the devil is in the details... for bottom posting to work well, you have to do the quoting in the right style.

Some critics of bottom posting say they hate it because they have to scroll down to see the reply. If they do, then that's usually an indication that the quotes were not trimmed sufficiently. Unlike with top posting, where fullquotes of the original message are the norm, bottom posting is associated with careful trimming. Keep enough of the original message to give proper context to your response, but take out irrelevant things like signatures, ads, and disclaimers, as well as parts of the message that are irrelevant to your reply. Usually, what's left of the quote is well under a screenful, so no scrolling is needed to get to your reply.

Here's a sample bottom-posted reply, in this case a "pure" bottom-post because there is only one part of the message being replied to, and hence, no interleaving of replies is used. (The different coloring of parts of this message, seen if your browser supports it, represents how some of the better mail readers will display a properly-quoted message, with different colors for each level of quoting. Sometimes, signature blocks will also get a distinct color if properly delimited.)

Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2003 11:10:29 -0400
From: "Jane Doe" <jane@example.net>
To: "Mary Roe" <mary@example.net>
Subject: Re: Some more things...

Mary Roe <mary@example.net> wrote:
[snip]
> And one more thing... What *do* they call
> French Fries in France???

When I was there, I remember the restaurants
serving "pommes frites", or just "frites".
I guess the fact that I ate at restaurants
that served that sort of thing indicates
that I didn't experience the heights of
French cuisine!  :)

-- 
Plain Jane

Among the things you can note in this message:

  1. The quoted material is set off using a right angle bracket (greater-than sign) at the beginning of each line.
  2. An attribution line precedes the quote to make it clear who said what.
  3. Sometimes (though not always), a note like "[snip]" is inserted at a point where parts of the message have been trimmed out, to make it clear that what you are quoting back is not the message in its entirety.
  4. The original message presumably consisted of a whole series of questions and comments on a variety of subjects; since the responder chose only to answer one of them, there was no need to quote the other, irrelevant, points.

If there are several points you're replying to, interleave your response between quotes (with an entirely blank line separating each section... see my notes in the previous article):

Date: Tue, 08 Apr 2003 18:47:13 -0400
From: "Jane Doe" <jane@example.net>
To: "Mary Roe" <mary@example.net>
Subject: Re: A couple of questions

Mary Roe <mary@example.net> wrote:
> How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if
> a woodchuck could chuck wood?

None.  It would have better things to do.

> And, most importantly... Who let the
> dogs out?

Nobody... they've been indoors all day, and
there's probably dog poop on your carpet
by now.

-- 
Plain Jane

When you make a reply to a reply, the doubly-replied quotes will have two angle brackets to the left of them, but you usually needn't keep a large amount of quotage that's more than one or two generations old in place; most of it can generally be snipped, unless it remains important to understanding the newest reply. As a message thread digresses further and further from its place of origin, the older parts will become increasingly irrelevant, and unnecessary to keep quoting.

When Does Bottom Posting Make Sense?

To understand why bottom (or interleaved) posting became the traditional standard for electronic correspondence in the era when computers were mostly used in "geek" and academic circles, it is useful to understand the typical characteristics of the correspondence used in such contexts, in which this quoting style comes naturally (and which contrasts with the characteristics of much business correspondence that tends to favor the opposite style, as noted in the next article). The typical characteristics of open-discussion forums (newsgroups, bulletin boards, email discussion lists, etc.), which for some "geeks" are the main context in which they read and write electronic messages, include:

  • Discussion is typically in the nature of a point-counterpoint debate between two or more people, where they attempt to refute, or sometimes agree with, one another's ideas one by one.

  • The discussion is a free-for-all, where anybody can chime in at any time; it doesn't always proceed linearly, but sometimes branches and digresses in all sorts of directions. Thus, a linear presentation of all the messages, in their entirety, that led up to the current one, might not make any particular logical sense compared to a selective quoting of the portions of recent messages that are actually relevant to the current digression.

  • Past messages are usually archived where anybody jumping into a thread late can find the earlier parts of it if they wish to see the background, or try to figure out just how the original topic managed to digress into what is being discussed now. A complete history attached to any one message is unnecessary.

  • Some people read the messages in digest form or in an archive file, where many messages are put together in one message or file, and any extraneous material (quotes, signatures, etc.) must be scrolled through whether it is at the start, end, or middle of the message. For this reason, and to save bandwidth and disk space for all the many people to whom the list messages are sent, brevity is desirable, and unnecessary material should be trimmed.

  • Users tend to have an extremely wide range of client programs with which they read and write messages; some use plain text only, some HTML; some break lines at 65 or 70 or 75 or 80 characters, while some use infinitely-long lines and expect the reader to re-wrap them; some prefix quotes with angle brackets or pipe characters or colons, or indent them, or do nothing at all to distinguish quotes other than preceding them with an attribution line. Some of these formatting choices violate traditional standards, but people use programs that do it anyway. One result is that any long message thread where each writer attaches the entire past history of the thread in full turns into a tangled mess of mis-wrapped lines, chaotic masses of bogus code where HTML messages are quoted back in plain text, and other craziness, caused by the whole history being filtered through lots of different programs' styles.

This set of characteristics leads naturally toward a preference for the traditional Internet (geek/academic/Usenet) style of using carefully trimmed quotes followed by the reply. This allows point-by-point inline rebuttals, minimizes bandwidth use, is a format well-suited for digesting and archiving, and minimizes the ability of various mail programs to mangle an entire thread.

But Interleaved Posting Isn't Just for Geeks!

However, even in business-related contexts, where top posting dominates in practice, traditional interleaved quoting can often make a lot of sense. Consider how you would format a reply to this message from your manager:

Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2003 14:21:09 -0400
From: "Joe Manager" <manager@example.com>
To: "Tom Worker" <worker@example.com>
Subject: A few questions

Tom,

A few questions I know you can answer for me:

Can you tell me what our total domestic unit widget sales were 
last month?

Also, give me the figure for international sales.

Another thing; we need to schedule a meeting with our regional 
sales reps who will be in town all next week.  Is Tuesday at 9:30 
OK with you?

One more meeting that needs to be scheduled is with the 
production manager, who's concerned about how our promotional 
plans will impact his production schedule.  Are you free 
Wednesday at 2:30 to meet with him?

Finally, I thought you ought to know about our new revised policy 
on use of the executive washroom... they'll distribute a memo on 
it eventually, but I thought I'd give you a heads-up by sending 
it to you now...

[200 lines of bureaucrap are inserted at this point]

-- 
Joe Manager
Department Head, Sales and Marketing
Example, Inc.

NOTICE:  Our lawyers insisted that we append this silly 
disclaimer to all our messages indicating stuff like that all 
messages are confidential and not to be read by anybody except 
the intended recipient, except that this gets appended to 
postings by our employees to public mailing lists too, where it's 
totally ridiculous, and anyway, it's at the end of the message 
where you've probably already read it, intended or not, by the 
time you see the disclaimer.  But we pay our lawyers big bucks, 
so we do what they say, however ridiculous it may be.
[25 more lines of legalese inserted here]

For me, the most logical reply format would be:

Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2003 15:02:14 -0400
From: "Tom Worker" <worker@example.com>
To: "Joe Manager" <manager@example.com>
Subject: Re: A few questions

Joe,

> Can you tell me what our total domestic unit widget sales were 
> last month?

20,413; this is up 5% from the previous month.

> Also, give me the figure for international sales.

18,498; this is down 10% from last month, perhaps impacted by the 
mideast situation.

> Another thing; we need to schedule a meeting with our regional 
> sales reps who will be in town all next week.  Is Tuesday at 9:30
> OK with you?

That's fine.  I'll be there!

> One more meeting that needs to be scheduled is with the 
> production manager, who's concerned about how our promotional 
> plans will impact his production schedule.  Are you free 
> Wednesday at 2:30 to meet with him?

That's not so great for me; I've got a dentist appointment then. 
I can reschedule it if necessary, but is there another time we 
can schedule that meeting, like maybe Thursday at 2:30?

> Finally, I thought you ought to know about our new revised policy 
> on use of the executive washroom... they'll distribute a memo on 
> it eventually, but I thought I'd give you a heads-up by sending 
> it to you now...

Thanks for the information!

-- 
Tom Worker
Assistant Grunt, Sales Department
Example, Inc.

NOTICE:  Our lawyers insisted that we append this silly
[33 more lines of legalese inserted here]

This puts the replies where you can easily see what question they're replying to, while avoiding unnecessary quoting of stuff like the 200-line policy document (there's no need to send that whole thing back to the person who sent it to you in the first place!) and the signatures and disclaimers at the end of the message.

If done by top posting, this reply would be hard to understand unless substantially rewritten; if you just use the word-for-word replies from above, you get:

20,413; this is up 5% from the previous month.

18,498; this is down 10% from last month, perhaps impacted by the 
mideast situation.

That's fine.  I'll be there!

That's not so great for me; I've got a dentist appointment then. 
I can reschedule it if necessary, but is there another time we 
can schedule that meeting, like maybe Thursday at 2:30?

Thanks for the information!

Can you tell which answer is to which question, without paging back and forth a lot to the quoted material? To disambiguate the replies, the writer would need to be much more long-winded, paraphrasing the questions in the course of answering them; so much for top posting requiring less work on the part of the author. And there's a risk that you'll forget to address some of the points of the original message at all, given that they're way down at the bottom instead of arrayed in order right next to your responses. Some corporate types probably regard this as an advantage, as it lets you "accidentally-on-purpose" ignore inconvenient parts of a message, while "covering your butt" by quoting back the whole original message to "prove" you actually did read the thing even though your actions don't give any sign of reading comprehension.

The interleaved quoting style becomes all the more useful if carried out consistently through the thread as it goes back and forth a few times to hammer down a meeting time (and notice below that one of the participants was thoughtful enough to change the subject line to something more appropriate at some point in the discussion). Here's the final reply of the thread, to which Tom has helpfully added attribution lines to clarify who said what in the several levels of quoting:

Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2003 16:48:23 -0400
From: "Tom Worker" <worker@example.com>
To: "Joe Manager" <manager@example.com>
Subject: Re: Meeting time (was: A few questions)

Joe,

[You said:]
> > > One more meeting that needs to be scheduled is with the 
> > > production manager, who's concerned about how our promotional 
> > > plans will impact his production schedule.  Are you free 
> > > Wednesday at 2:30 to meet with him?

[I said:]
> > That's not so great for me; I've got a dentist appointment then. 
> > I can reschedule it if necessary, but is there another time we 
> > can schedule that meeting, like maybe Thursday at 2:30?

[You said:]
> The production manager is tied up then, but he's free Thursday
> morning at 10:00.  Is that OK with you?

That's fine... go ahead and schedule the meeting.

-- 
Tom Worker
Assistant Grunt, Sales Department
Example, Inc.

NOTICE:  Our lawyers insisted that we append this silly
[33 more lines of legalese inserted here]

If top posting and full-quoting were used, the final message in the thread would be pretty large, and include lots of material no longer relevant to what is being discussed; one piece of very relevant material (the purpose of the meeting being scheduled) would be buried deeply in the middle of the old quotes, and hard to dig up. And there would be four repetitions of the corporate disclaimer in a row at the end of the message, as it gets added by the mail server to each message.

Granted, the above is probably an unrealistic example... your typical Pointy-Haired Boss (PHB) most likely would not only fail to recognize interleaved replies when he received them, but would probably have sent the 200-line executive washroom policy document as a 500 kilobyte MS-Word attachment. But some people have more clueful and considerate bosses, even if they're rare.

The Practice of Bottom Posting

E-mail users tend towards laziness, encouraged by the fact that this is a simple, informal medium. While writing a paper letter requires a good deal of work (finding a stamp, envelope, and stationery, going to a mailbox or post office to mail it, etc.), sending e-mail just requires a few mouse clicks, and dashing off a quick note on the keyboard. People don't want to do any more work than they have to, and that's one of the most common objections raised to bottom posting; you need to carefully trim the quoted material, which is more work than just attaching the whole mess to the bottom.

However, once you're used to it and have gained experience at quote-trimming, it really doesn't take much time and effort; a seasoned bottom-poster can trim down the quote and begin typing a reply in a matter of seconds, and doing this is very helpful in organizing your thoughts about just what points in the original message you want to address. Here's a step-by-step guide to how I go about replying to a message myself. The specifics will vary somewhat based on the mail program and operating system you are using, but are usually very similar to this.

After hitting "Reply", the mail program quotes the original message into the text editing screen, with angle brackets to the left and an attribution line above. The cursor starts at the top, which doesn't mean that's where the program wants me to put my reply; rather, that's where the trimming starts!

[Replying: Screen 1]

I move the cursor down below the attribution line (two down arrows), then note that the first part of the quoted material is irrelevant to my reply, so I hold down the Shift key while hitting the down arrow a few more times to highlight the material I'm going to snip out.

[Replying: Screen 2]

I continue until the whole first part that I'm removing is highlighted... (Actually, I goofed here... the part I'm deleting includes the attribution line for a quote-of-a-quote that I'm keeping, so I really should have kept it. Maybe one of these days I'll fix this example...)

[Replying: Screen 3]

then I press the Del key to delete it. The next section of quoted material is a part I want to keep, so I move the cursor down to the end of the section, to the point where I want to start replying.

[Replying: Screen 4]

At that spot, I hit Enter twice, to put a blank line between the quote and my reply, then I start typing.

[Replying: Screen 5]

When I'm finished with my reply, I hit Enter twice to make another blank line, then move the cursor down to the next section of quoted material, which I will either snip or keep in order to make a reply to that section too.

[Replying: Screen 6]

Even if I am keeping the following quoted section, I'll delete the line with nothing but an angle bracket (where the cursor is above)... those things add nothing useful, and look like ugly "tails" attached to the top or bottom of a quoted section.

Not so hard, huh?

Unfortunately, some mail programs, particularly the ones from Microsoft, are very hostile to bottom-posters; they put the signature block (if you have one) above the quoted material and the cursor above it, inviting a top-post and making it a pain to do anything else. The OE-Quotefix program can help, though. As you'll see in the next article, there are other mail programs, such as Pegasus Mail, that are a "mirror image" of this, being hostile to top-posters because they always put the signature block below the quote (expecting you to trim the quotes, then put your reply beneath it). This depends a lot on which of the "two camps" the program's developers falls into; the "holy war" aspect of the conflict gets in the way of the seemingly common-sense solution of providing configuration options allowing the user to choose a setting that fully conforms to the conventions of their chosen style, whichever one it is. (In late 2003, Mozilla became one of the few mail clients that can "swing both ways", as they added a top-posted-signature option in addition to its traditional bottom-posting format.)

In addition, some mail readers improve the readability of the interleaved quoting style by showing quoted material in different colors depending on how many angle brackets precede it. On the other hand, some programs cause problems by re-word-wrapping multiply quoted material without replacing the angle brackets properly, causing ragged lines where it's hard to tell what quoting level they belong to, and sometimes re-wrapping the angle brackets into the middle of lines. Other programs do a "smarter" rewrap by removing the angle brackets before rewrapping, then putting them back at the beginning of the lines of the newly rewrapped text. Still others don't mess with the line format of quoted text, so that lines keep getting longer as more angle brackets are placed at their start; this is why it is recommended you keep line length relatively short to allow several levels of quoting without the lines exceeding 80 characters.

Fisking

In the mid-2000s, a slang expression fisking (which sounds vaguely kinky) developed to refer to any attempt to respond to or refute an article, opinion column, or blog post with a blog post of your own that responds to things in the original article in a point-by-point manner. Some people seem to regard this as mean, especially those who have had their own articles picked over in this manner. I guess these days people are used to the top-posting style of response where the response only vaguely addresses points in the original without lining them up one by one.

Links

Next: Read about the other quoting style, "top posting", and why there are some contexts where it comes naturally even if us "geeks" think it's a demon-spawn from the pits of Hell.

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