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Quoting: Introduction

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When you are replying to somebody else's e-mail message, it's customary to include quoted material from the message you are replying to. As you'll see in articles in this site, there's a raging controversy over the formatting of replies, between advocates of bottom posting and top posting. But before we get into this heated battle, it's important to start by explaining why e-mail users want to quote at all.

Why Quote?

Quite simply, the reason to quote from the message you are replying to is to provide context for your reply. It may be hours or days between when somebody sends a message and when they receive the reply, and in the meantime, that person may have had to deal with lots of different e-mail messages on lots of different topics. By the time the response is read, the reader might have no idea what it's about. Including text from the original message can be a useful "memory jog". Without context, a brief reply can be really cryptic:

Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 11:21:46 -0400
From: "Jack Jackson" <jack@example.net>
To: "John Johnson" <john@example.org>
Subject: Re: What's up?

John,

Sure... that sounds like a great idea.

-- 
Jack

Maybe you've proposed a number of ideas to a number of people lately, and think all of them are great... so which one is Jack referring to here? Some quoting would clue you in.

How to Quote

With most current mail programs, it's easier to quote than not to; when you select the "Reply" command, the text of the original message is copied into the editor window. There are commonly some configuration options dealing with how the quotes are formatted -- with or without a prefix character (normally the greater-than sign, >), with or without re-word-wrapping of long lines, with a multi-line header or a single attribution line. But whichever options you pick, the quoted text winds up in the text editor where you can keep it, delete it, or snip it at will; you're not compelled to keep it intact, as-is. The subsequent articles on top and bottom posting will discuss quote-trimming some more. Some of you may immediately think, when the subject of editing a quote is brought up, that this is a dishonest thing to do, altering the words somebody else said. It would be, if you used the editor to add, drop, or change words in the quote in a way that makes it look like the original writer said something different than he or she actually did. So don't do that. You can, however, edit out unnecessary sections of the original message (generally at the paragraph or sentence level, not word-by-word!), as described in the following article.

In some mail programs, if you highlight a portion of the original message before you hit "Reply", only the portion you highlighted will be quoted, not the entire message. This can be a convenient way to get the appropriate partial quote into the editor without having to snip out parts.

Some mail programs give you a dialog box when you hit "Reply", to let you choose between some options (like whether or not to quote the original message) on a message-by-message basis instead of having to set this globally and permanently. Often, the values in this box will "stick" to whatever they were last time you used it, so if you use a different set of choices for one particular message be sure to pay attention next time you reply and set the options back if necessary.

When Not to Quote

There are some occasions where it makes more sense not to quote at all. If your message is actually not a reply, but is discussing issues unrelated to any earlier message, you should start it as a new message without the baggage of quoted material. In some cases, out of convenience, people send new messages using the "Reply" feature, because they have a past message from the same person (though on a different topic) in their inbox or a message archive folder, so replying to it is easier for them than starting a new message (especially if the person is not in your address list). In this case, either choose the option not to include any quoted material (if your mail program has this), or delete it from the editor. Also remember to change the subject line to something relevant to your new message, without a "Re:" prefix. But note that doing replies in this manner (especially in a discussion list or newsgroup) may still cause problems for the recipient, even if you change the subject line and remove irrelevant quotes; most mail programs will add an "In-Reply-To" header that points to the message being replied to, and some programs will display incoming messages in a threaded manner based on this header, which can put a message in an unrelated thread if you use the "Reply" feature indiscriminately. Hence, it is best to always start a new message, instead of a reply, if your message is not directly in reply to another message.

Setting Off Quotes from New Material

Be sure to set off your replies clearly from quotes. This is true whether you post on the top or the bottom. Generally, you should leave a completely empty line at every point in your messages in which quoted material gives way to a reply or vice versa. That's a completely blank line, not a line that's blank except for a greater-than sign at the left edge of it. Hit the ENTER key twice in a row to get one. There are some good reasons for this:

  1. This makes a clean visual separation between quotes and new writing; the reader can scan down the left edge of the message and see easily where the parts are separated. Anything in the "blank" lines, even a greater-than sign, causes a continuous left margin without the breaks that signal these separations. It makes the whole message look like a big, hard-to-read, block of uninterrupted text.

  2. Even worse, sometimes a mail program will re-word-wrap the message, and if there's no blank line, the quote and new writing may be "seen" by the program as part of the same paragraph, and wrapped together so that the boundary is wiped out altogether. This can cause huge misunderstandings, as people attribute portions of the text to the wrong person.

  3. Messages without clean separations between quotes and replies are just plain ugly, at least to my aesthetic sensibilities.

Some examples:

The Good:
> Am I replying to your e-mail in the correct format?

Yes, you are.
The Bad:
> Am I replying to your e-mail in the correct format?
>
No, you're not.
The Ugly:
> Am I replying to your e-mail in the correct format?
> No, you're not.

(in the last example, the reply got word-wrapped into the preceding line with a greater-than sign, making it look like part of the quote)

Marking Quoted Material

Often, quoted material will be distinguished from new material by being prefixed with a character to mark that it is a quote. With bottom posting, this is essential to distinguish the old material from the new. With top posting, it isn't necessary, if there's an adequate separator line, but it's sometimes done anyway. While several different characters have been used for this purpose, the most common is the greater-than sign (>). That's the best one to use, since it is what readers are likely to expect, and some mail programs even color quoted material differently by looking for this prefix. Also, you should make sure the quote mark is the first character of each quoted line; some programs put a space first, and that causes some other programs to fail to recognize it as a quote.

One quote-marking method that's a bad idea is to use marking characters only at the very beginning and end of the quote, like this:

> This is quoted material.  It keeps going for several
lines, but only the beginning and end are marked as quotes,
not the lines in the middle. <

A mail reader that colors quotes differently will probably just color the first line, not realizing that the quote continues. So don't use that style.

Attribution of Quotes

Finally, it is very important that you make it clear who is being quoted. Big fights on mailing lists and newsgroups have been triggered by misunderstandings in this regard, where people accuse one another of saying something they didn't say, or of attributing something improperly to them. Make sure to have a proper attribution line with the quoted material. This can get complicated when quotes get re-quoted to several nested levels, as well as when you're replying to a digest-form collection of mailing list messages so that the default attribution line supplied by your mail program refers to the list as a whole rather than the individual writer; in such cases, you should take the time to straighten out the attributions, even if you have to add them in by hand. When there's a complicated set of different pieces of quotes of quotes of quotes, you might have to go through the whole mess, straighten out bad formatting, make sure the number of quote characters preceding each line correctly reflects the level of quotation, and add attribution lines. It's a bit of work, but it saves your readers the similar level of work it would take to understand the message.

Attribution headers vary a lot in format. Traditionally, they are concise lines like this:

Mary Smith said:

or sometimes they have a little more information, such as the date of the message:

At 04:19 (GMT) on 14 Feb 2007, Mary Smith said:

However, some programs, including Microsoft Outlook, like to use a rather long header, which traditionalists find excessively verbose:

-----Original Message-----
Date: Sat, 29 Mar 2003 20:44:23 -0500
From: "John Johnson" 
To: "Jack Jackson" 
Subject: Re: A question

While many people hate such headers, there are those who expect them and get disappointed whenever they try to use a program such as Mozilla Thunderbird that doesn't use headers like that. The "Outlook-style" headers fit into a mindset whereby quoted material (to which the replies are almost invariably top posted) is intended to be a complete archive of the message thread rather than a brief excerpt for purposes of establishing context, and hence its users expect a complete set of headers for each quoted message; in corporate environments, it serves a "cover-your-ass" function by showing who said what when.

Links

Next: As I said, there are two "schools of thought" on how to format quoted material in a reply. Here's the one that traditional Internet and Usenet users prefer.

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This page was first created 05 May 2003, and was last modified 13 Feb 2007.
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