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Email etiquette for dummies
Shaun Fawcett
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September 25, 2007

You would be amazed at some of the pure gibberish that arrives in my e-mailbox on a regular basis.

Many people seem to think that because they aren't dealing directly with another person (or as directly as they would be face-to-face or by telephone), all forms of civility and basic respect for the other person (ie the recipient) and the English language can go out the proverbial window.

Not true! Writing e-mails is still communicating. Both the recipient and the language still deserve your respect.

The following dos and don'ts of writing e-mails have been adapted from my eBook entitled 'Instant Home Writing Kit'. The first version of these appeared in another one of my books 'Internet Basics without fear!' (1999, 2000).

DO... Use a descriptive subject line

There is nothing more annoying than receiving e-mails in your e-inbox with no heading, or a heading that does not explain what the content of the message is all about.
When one receives multiple messages every day, the subject-line is important when reviewing and prioritising e-mail that is in one's mailbox. Also, if you include a descriptive title, your message is almost guaranteed to be read before the ones with blank or meaningless titles.

Tip: I even revise the subject line when I am sending a reply, to reflect the essence of my response. This is especially useful if it's one of those e-mails that travels back and forth three or four times. Often, there is little relationship between the point of the first message and the later ones. So, try revising the subject line slightly each time to reflect the content of the current reply.

DO... Use opening and closing salutations

Some people have forgotten that e-mail is interpersonal communication between human beings. Basic civility still applies.

There is nothing much more impersonal than receiving an e-mail that doesn't at least say 'Hello...' or 'Hi...' for the opening; and 'Regards...' or 'Thanks...' or 'Take care...' or 'All the best...', or something similar as the closing.

We can't personally sign the note by hand anymore, but we can surely personalise it a little bit by at least typing in the recipient's name and then wishing them the best.

DO... Use capital letters sparingly

The use of all-caps is shunned on the Internet. It's called SHOUTING. Every once in a while a word or two in capitals for particular emphasis is okay, but avoid overdoing it.

Tip: Cutesy little smiles and similar symbols, known as  emoticons, should also be used sparingly. :-) I advise you not to use these symbols at all in business e-mails, unless the recipient is a friend or well-known to you. Just as with business letters, the principle underlying business e-mails is: clear and concise businesslike communication with a minimum of clutter.

DO... Check spellings, grammar and format

Make a point to ensure that your e-mail is relatively readable. It doesn't have to be a work of art, but at least respect the basic rules of spelling and grammar. Most e-mail programs have a spell-checker option. Use it.

Tip: For better readability, break your e-mail into short one, two or three sentence paragraphs with a blank line between
paragraphs (ie double hard-return).

DO... Watch out for 'e-mail rage'

Many an e-mail has been composed and sent when a person was in an angry or upset state (referred to as 'flaming'). Many people have lived to regret these indiscretions in the cold sober light of the next hour, or the next day. Remember, whenever the 'Send' button has been clicked, your e-mail is gone.

Tip: When you compose an e-mail while in an upset state, it is always a good idea to save it as a draft for an hour or two and then read it over carefully at least once before sending it, just to make sure you are communicating what you really want to, in a clear and respectful way.

DON'T... Forward junk mail to others

From time to time, people to whom we have given our e-mail address will have momentary lapses in judgment (yes, even
friends and family) and will forward 'junk mail' to you.

These are often long rambling stories, urban myths, scraps of wisdom, chain letters, collections of jokes, or such, that are prevalent around the Net.

This is the equivalent of opening your regular mail box at home and finding it loaded with unsolicited and unwanted promotional letters and advertising flyers. Would you forward those to your friends or family? Do you? I didn't think so.

When you receive one of these in your e-inbox, DO NOT forward it on to someone else. Kill it then and there. This kind of unsolicited junk mail is known as 'spam' and is definitely not acceptable on the Net.

If a friend or acquaintance sends one to you, politely e-mail them back asking if they would please be kind enough to remove your name from their distribution list for that type of item. Explain that you are already inundated with this 'type'  of unsolicited e-mail.
Usually, they will take the hint and accommodate you.

DON'T... Think that e-mail is instantaneous

Believe it or not, e-mail is not as reliable as a telephone call when it comes to timely communication!

The Internet is a loosely connected network of computers and telecommunications equipment owned, operated and managed by many independent companies, institutions and government organisations.

Your e-mail must often travel a complex and circuitous route to get to its destination. For example, if someone schedules maintenance on a computer or a piece of equipment on the network that your e-mail must pass through, your message may be delayed and you won't even know it.

Also, who is to guarantee that the intended recipient even checks their e-mail regularly? Many people only check their e-mail every few days. So, if your communication is urgent, use the standard telephone. It is still the only way to be absolutely sure that a message has been received at a particular point in time.

DON'T... Forget to check your e-mail regularly

There is nothing more frustrating than sending an e-mail to someone and then having them tell you on the telephone a week later that they haven't seen your message because the last time they checked their e-mail was a week ago!

If you want people to take your e-mails seriously, make sure that you take theirs seriously too. So, check your e-mail regularly; at least every two or three days.

The bottom line to all of this is simple. Remember that e-mail is just another form of interpersonal communication. People deserve the same amount of respect and civility as you would give them in a telephone call or a regular letter.

Shaun Fawcett is webmaster of the popular He is also the author of several best selling 'writing toolkit' eBooks. All of his eBooks and his world famous f-r-e-e Writing Success Course are available at

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