Email List Etiquette

Subject Lines

It’s very easy to create a subject line that means nothing to anyone. It’s almost as easy to create a subject line that means something to you, the sender, but nothing to anyone else. It’s not actually that hard to create a subject line that will mean something to the reader, but so many people fail to do so and, thereby, miss out on contacts with people who quite simply don’t have time to read every message they receive.

What isn’t a good subject? Well, certainly “Help” and “Family History” aren’t. Note too that if you read a list in digest form, you must not reply without fixing the digest subject line back into something meaningful!

What is a good subject line? Well that’s not really easy to say. “JORDAN, Margate, c.1900” would get my attention and could be safely ignored by someone with no interest in that surname, area and timeperiod. Note that I capitalised the surname, and nothing else. The subject should encapsulate, in very few words, what your message is about. Just pause while composing your message and think about it, the subject line is the advertisement that will get “the right people” to open your message and read it. That said, don’t ever use a deliberately misleading subject line, that will just result in people ignoring any future messages you post with honest subjects!

Capital Letters

Capital letters have acquired special significance in emails. Whole sentences written in capitals will almost invariably be construed as shouting. Individual words may be capitalised for emphasis although I personally prefer to emphasise a word by placing a /solidus/ at either end – many email programs will display such a word in italics. In family history circles it is, of course, expected that family names will be capitalised to make them easier to pick out in a quick scan of the message text.

Off-topic Messages

One of my pet hates are those messages that start by saying they are ‘off-topic but …’. Please don’t! The way I see it is that if you know the message is off-topic then you also know you should not be posting it to the list. Looking at it the other way, if you believe you can justify posting it to the list then you also believe it is on-topic!

Test Messages

Please don’t ever send a test message to a list. Just think, what if the server is struggling to cope with its workload and 500 list members send test messages! Think too on whether you want 500 test messages from other list members! Instead, have a look at the list archives and see whether the last messages listed in the (date ordered) archive match to the most recent messages you received. They may not match exactly, messages do occasionally go astray or arrive out of order. Similarly, if you post a message to a list and think it may not have gone through, check the archive to see if it is there before doing anything else.

If you think you may have difficulty in posting to a list, there really is no need to send a test message. If you have something to post, post that and if it goes through, all is well. If it doesn’t go through you can always try posting it again when you think you have sorted out the problem. If, on the other hand, you don’t have anything you need to post to the list yet, then you don’t need to do the test yet either!



It’s about time to talk about the subject of how, and how much, of the previous message(s) to include in a reply. For now I’ll just introduce some terminology to give you something to think about. Top-posters, bottom-posters and interleavers.

These people always type their bit at the top. Almost invariably the whole of a previous string of messages follows. In the worst cases this goes on until the mesages become too big for the list and they stop getting through!
Obviously, the opposite of top-posters. At least these people have had to work down through the previous messages and will have given some consideration to which parts should be deleted.
In most cases, not all, the best plan is to interleave your replies so it immediately follows the part of the original you are replying to.

Horses for Courses

Having defined some types of reply, which should you choose? The answer is that it’s horses for courses. I don’t want to proscribe what approach should be taken in what instance, what is important is that you think about the matter. That said, I will give some illustrations of my personal approach to the matter.

Scenario one – I have received an email that should have gone to a different committee member. In this case I would almost invariably top post a brief comment before sending it on to the correct committee member. An important consideration here is that I’m passing it on to someone who has not seen the original, so none of it should be cut.

Scenario two – like one but I’m passing on my attempt at an answer asking someone else for their view. In this case I would almost certainly top-post a brief comment and then bottom-post my suggested answer so that the third party gets to read question and answer in the right order.

Scenario three – someone asks me several questions in one message. Here I’m sending a personal reply to someone who has seen the original. I’m not, however, going to assume that person will remember all the details so I will interleave my answers and leave just enough of the original so that the answers can be put in context. Wherever sensible I will replace one or more lines of the original by the line

Message Threads

A collection of messages on a topic – the initial message and all the replies, and replies to replies, etc – is known as a thread. How a thread is presented to you will depend on the email program you are using and is not something I can comment on here.

The important point about threads is that if you [reply] to a message then (most) mail programs will include a hidden header indicating the connection with the previous message. Thus it is very important that when you want to ask a new question, you must [compose] a new message rather than [reply] to an old one. Even if you change the subject line and delete all of the old message content, I (and many others too!) will not see your new question as my mail program will treat it as a reply to a previous one (and display it under the subject line of the previous one).

Some other useful links on list etiquette

How to send plain text messages instead of HTML