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Mail Manners: A Question Of Quoting

Several days ago, a reader asked about one of the most divisive subjects in Internet culture today--a topic that can set even old friends on edge, should they disagree about it.

I'm not talking about Mac versus PC, the iPod versus other MP3 players, cable versus satellite or any of those simple debates.

No, the reader asked this:

When I reply to an e-mail, my answer now goes at the bottom of the initial e-mail instead of the top where it went in Outlook I would prefer it to be at the top. Is there a way to change this?

In asking this, this reader has unintentionally earned the scorn of Internet traditionalists everywhere, who consider "bottom posting" or "bottom quoting" basic mail manners. Advocates of this view have written lengthy treatises and FAQ entries to explain its virtues, most of which boil down to the idea that it's illogical for the answer to a question to precede the question.

Top Bottom posting is also the only feasible way to reply in context, inserting your responses after each paragraph of a longer message. It's also a natural extension of the common-sense practice of only quoting the parts of a message that warrant a reply.

Arguments for "top posting" or "top quoting" are harder to find. For instance, this defense of bottom-posting includes the grudging acknowledgment that "If you're forwarding an entire message, sure, add your own remarks at the top, as a preface."

And yet the vast majority of the mail I receive comes from top-posting. Part of that is because of the default settings in most mail programs; Microsoft Outlook, Gmail and Apple's Mail, for example, default to starting any reply at the top of a message. (By contrast, Mozilla Thunderbird and many older mail programs default to bottom posting.)

There are also some functional grounds for top posting. For example, this way your correspondent will see your words first, not his or her. And if they're already in the habit of top posting--which seems to be the case for about 99 percent of the PR and marketing types I deal with--you may risk confusion with a bottom-posted reply.

I used to be fairly doctrinaire about bottom posting, but after getting so much top-posted mail I've had to moderate my views. I still normally put my reply at the end of a message--but if I'm answering a reader's lengthy technical query with a shorter response, I'll leave that at the top. And to avoid confusion, if I'm exchanging mail with somebody who replies at the top of a message, I will do the same.

Where do you all stand on this contentious issue?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 9, 2008; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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