Despite the fact that e-mail has been firmly entrenched
in offices and homes for some time, debate still rages
online about e-mail usage and style.
How should you begin and end an e-mail message? If
replying to a message, should you quote that message
before or after your message? What tone should you take
with business e-mail?
To gauge opinion, I talked with some heavy e-mail users
who keep their eyes peeled to the latest online trends.
All of these people write about the Internet or advise
others how to best handle the topic.
Scott M. Fulton III, cofounder of Ingenus Communications,
an editorial services firm in Indianapolis, disapproves
of the creeping informality of business e-mail. “The
abundance of informal e-mail is eroding some peoples’
ability to be formal when needed,” he says. To
his dismay, he receives many e-mails from people he’s
never met that begin with salutations such as “Hi
Avoiding formalities can save time by letting you get
right to the point. But Fulton feels informality causes
some people to correspond in a less structured and efficient
way than if they considered their words more carefully.
On the other hand, the quaint letter-writing practice
of beginning an e-mail salutation with “Dear”
can sometimes stick out like a faulty RAM chip. Karen
Heyman, chair of the ethics committee of the Internet
Press Guild, doesn’t mind business e-mail that
substitutes “Hi” for “Dear.”
Some people, however, may regard this as presumptuous,
particularly if the “Hi” is followed by
the person’s first name. “Hello,”
by itself or followed by Mr. or similar title and the
person’s last name, can be a good way to break
A key difference between e-mail and postal mail is
speed. People receiving e-mail are operating in Internet
time. You need to be succinct and place your most important
information first, or it might not get read.
Steven Cherry, who covers the Internet for IEEE
Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers, Inc., typically begins the
body of his e-mail messages by summarizing the subject
matter and reminding his correspondent of any previous
One common technique, unique to online writing, is
automatically quoting all or part of a message if you’re
responding to one. When they have nothing better to
do, people in various online discussion groups debate
whether it makes more sense to place this quote before
or after your response.
According to the most persuasive arguments, it’s
best to 1) quote a relevant snippet of a message and
place it in front of your response to provide context,
2) quote multiple snippets and respond directly under
each if you’re responding to multiple points,
and 3) avoid quoting the entirety of a long message
at the beginning of yours.
If the convention in your organization, however, is
to quote the entire message after your response, do
As with most writing, the purpose of e-mail is to communicate.
Some consider it hip to forgo capitalization and correct
spelling and grammar. This may be faster for you, but
it slows down your readers as they decipher what you
Similarly, e-mailers often use acronyms such as IMHO,
which is short for “in my humble opinion,”
and “emoticons” such as <g>, which
is short for “grin” and signals you’re
trying to be friendly or tell a joke. Such conventions
work so long as you know you’ll be understood.
Don’t forget to proofread. E-mail spell-checkers
aren’t foolproof, and they won’t prevent
a flirty message you intended for a single recipient
a couple of cubicles down from going to a distribution
list comprising your entire department.
E-mail closings are also generally less formal than
letter closings. Lisa Napell Dicksteen, who runs LMN
Editorial, an editorial services practice in Port Jefferson,
N.Y., says she has seen more messages lately ending
with “Best,” and that’s what she does.
The exceptions are e-mails in which she’s filing
a complaint or asking for a refund, in which she uses
Alan Zeichick, editor-in-chief of SD Times,
a magazine for software developers, signs off with “Cheers!”
with people he knows and “Thanks” or “Regards”
with those he doesn’t. “Sincerely”
also still works well with e-mail.
Even though the “From” line in an e-mail
message usually contains your name, it’s considered
personable to sign off with it as well. Some people
skip the “Sincerely” and simply type their
first name or initials or, more formally, include an
automatically generated “sig” (signature
file) consisting of their full name, title, and other
information they want to close with.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org