Dan's Mail Format Site

a site -- by Dan Tobias

E-mail is the most frequently-used feature on the Internet, more popular even than the Web. Over the many years it has been used (going back to the early 1970s), lots of standards, traditions, and guidelines have developed regarding the formatting of e-mail messages. If your messages fail to abide by these principles, they risk being unreadable in one or another of the multiplicity of mail reader programs in use, or annoying the recipient and possibly provoking a dreaded Internet Flame War. I created this site to explain the ins and outs of e-mail, bringing together in one site (for the first time that I am aware of) discussion of all the different aspects of the format of an e-mail message. If you've wondered what all the message headers mean, or how to try to figure out where a piece of spam with a bogus return address really came from, or what somebody means when they yell at you for "top posting", or why somebody says your messages are hard to read because the lines stretch out indefinitely to the right, you'll find the answers to these and other questions in this site.

NOTE: One "hot question": is it e-mail or email? Similarly to the debate between Web site and website, this is an unsettled point. The first choices (e-mail and Web site) are the traditionally-correct ones, and hence the ones I use in my sites out of a desire to be meticulously accurate in my terminology. However, languages do change and evolve over time, and the current seems definitely to be moving towards the latter choices (email and website), as the things being described transition from proper nouns (deserving of special punctuation and capitalization) to generic words for commonplace things a new generation has grown up with. I may change my own style this way eventually; already, in casual messages I tend to type email and website myself. (In 2011, the AP stylebook finally switched to "email" instead of "e-mail", after having similarly changed from "Web site" to "website" the year before.)

To read all the articles in this site, start with the first one and keep following the "Next" links. Or, if you're looking for a particular topic, get to it from the menu below.

  • Headers -- See what goes in the head of a message and what you can learn from it.

  • Body -- The main part of a message; how should the text be formatted?

  • Trailers -- Stuff tagged onto the end of a message, such as your signature.

  • Quoting -- All about replying to, quoting from, and forwarding messages, including the Great Top vs. Bottom Posting Debate.

  • Attachments -- Sending pictures and other files attached to a message.

  • Configuration -- How to set your mail program to follow the standards and avoid common problems.

  • Tools -- Check e-mail messages for format problems.



Throughout this site, I have links to other sites with relevant information. I don't necessarily endorse or agree with everything said on every one of these sites, but I think they provide useful additions to what I discuss here. Links related to specific topics are on the appropriate pages; here are a few more general sites on the subject of e-mail and related issues.


This page was first created 13 Apr 2003, and was last modified 6 Sep 2021.
Copyright © 2003-2021 by Daniel R. Tobias. All rights reserved.