Email Tips

Email formats

An email message is a stream of characters. By default, the characters are in the ASCII character set (for standard English) or the ISO-8859-1 character set (for Western European languages). Other character sets and non-character data can be included in email messages using the internet standard called MIME. As the sender of emails, you would need to be aware of the character set being used by your email tool and whether the MIME standards are correctly being followed.

In the Birmingham School of Computer Science, as in most other computer science departments in English-speaking countries, the preferred format for email messages is ASCII plain text. (ASCII is an American standard and it is part of the ISO-8859-1 international standard.) Further, the text should be broken into lines, with each line containing at most 80 characters (the standard width for text windows). In fact, lines containing fewer than 80 characters enhance readability.

Formatted text Some mail tools are capable of sending formatted text. Such text may be in the standard MIME format called "text/enriched", the HTML format (the mark-up language used for Web pages), the RTF format (a Microsoft standard for formatted text) or other similar formats. While such formatted text can annotate your message with various fonts, colors and other formatting features, please be aware that the recipient of your message may not have tools for viewing formatted text. In that case, the mark-up features would just obscure the message you want to get across. It is always a best practice to send plain text messages unless you are sure that the recipient can process formatted text. Alternatively, you might set the options of your mail tool to send messages in both plain text and formatted text. (This is created using a MIME format called multipart/alternative. The recipient of your message can similarly set the options of his/her mail tool to show only the plain text version or only the formatted text version or both.)

Tables The text of an email message is displayed to you using a font, which set by operating system options. The recipient of your message may use quite a different font from what you use and, therefore, his/her viewing experience may be quite different from yours. In particular, there is a crucial difference between fixed-width fonts, which display every character with the same width, and proportional fonts, which display different characters in different widths. Here are some examples:
Fixed width fonts Proportional fonts
Courier Times Roman
Courier New Times new Roman
Lucida console Helvetica
Web browsers and word processors typically use proportional fonts whereas command consoles and Unix text editors typically use fixed-width fonts.

If you want to type in a table in a fixed width font, it is easy. Since every character has the same width, you can type the right number of spaces to align the columns. The table will look right in every fixed width font. On the other hand, there is no uniform way to create a table in a proportional font unless you use a word processor. If you type spaces to align the columns, it won't look the same to your recipient unless he/she uses exactly the same font to view your message. For this reason, if you are typing in plain text tables in your message, you should always use a fixed width font.

Line breaks There are two kinds of text editors on modern computers:

In a word-wrapping editor, you type the text of a paragraph as if you are typing on a single line, and the editor takes care of fitting the lines into the window. If you change the size of the window, the editor automatically readjusts the lines to fit into the new size. You start a new line only when you want to open a new paragraph. On the other hand, in a traditional text editor, people type carriage returns as and when they want to break lines.

When you exchange email between a traditionalist mail tool and a word-wrapping mail tool, you run into problems because the traditionalist tool expects line breaks and the word-wrapping mail tool doesn't.

In my opinion, word-wrapping is the right solution. But, most traditionalists are not convinced and, so, their email tools can't yet handle word wrapping. The rift between the word-wrappers and the traditionalists shows no sign of closing any time soon. (If you are an Emacs user, see my Emacs tips page for word wrapping solutions.)

I suggest a compromise to paper over the present difficulty. If you use a word-wrapping mail tool, use the following conventions:

We then hope that your email recipient's traditionalist mail tool will be able to keep the paragraphs apart and process them appropriately, such as filling and justification or whatever. Here is an example:
This is an email message as it might appear in a
word-wrapping compose window.

Note that we use a blank line to indicate a new 
paragraph.  If we want to display a bulleted list, 
such as

 - the first item
 - a second item
 - and another one

we insert blank lines before and after the list.

Similarly, for a table to be inserted:

        column 1     column 2

        sample       sample
        sample       sample

And, we hope that we have given enough hints to the 
traditionalist mail tool of our recipient so that it 
can keep things apart.

Configuring your email tool for plain text

See Gerald E. Boyd's instructions for configuring email tools for a wide variety of email tools. Here, I include the most common ones:

Microsoft Outlook Express (Version 6)

Microsoft Outlook Express (Version 5)


When you begin to compose a message, there should be a drop box labelled Tools just above the text window. Look in the options drop list of this box. If there is an option called "Rich Text OFF", select it and you will compose a plain text message. If you see an option called "Rich Text ON," you are already set to send a plain text message and you should cancel the drop list by pressing the Escape-key.

If you have Rich Text ON, then you will see a formatting toolbar in the text window. Thata means that you are sending a HTML message. You can use the formatting toolbar to enhance your text with fonts and other features. But, make sure that your recipient will be using an HTML-enabled mail reader.

Reading Email

You know how to read email, right? Of course, you do. However, there are some gotchas, espeically if you use modern mail tools which are designed for novice users.

Microsoft Outlook and other similar mail tools normally allow you to read email in a split pane mode. The main frame is divided into two panes: the upper pane shows an index of message headers and the lower pane shows a preview of a mail message. Note that it is only a preview, not the entire mail message. What is missing?

Attachments: The attachments included in the message are not shown in the preview pane. There is usually a little paper clip symbol that is displayed in the titlebar. Unless you have paid particular attention to the paper clip or the message text reminds you that there is an attachment, you might miss it. Mea culpa!

If you double click on a message header in the index, it opens a separate window for the message, which contains little icons for all the attachments. You won't miss them. But who is going to remember to open the separate message window for every message?

Full headers: Email messages have a number of headers which often contain useful information. They have information about how a message got routed from its origin to your machine; they might have tags such as priority, importance etc.; they might have information about the MIME formats used in constructing the message. Most modern mail tools don't show you the full headers by default but, by doing some extra work, you can find the full headers. Here is how:

Email at home

This discusssion is tailored to University of Birmingham Computer Science students.

It is quite easy to read and send email from home using a private ISP account. First, a few basics.

The support web page "How to Configure your Mail Software" gives you instructions for configuring Outlook Express as well as Netscape. Please follow these instructions. Irrespective of which outgoing mail server you may be using, you would want to specify your "From" address as This is so that when people reply to your messages, the replies will arrive at your School's mail box instead of your ISP's mail box. (If they arrive at your ISP's mail box, you won't be able to read the replies from the School machines.)

If you are more adventurous, you should consider installing the SSH client on your home machine. The supportweb page on SSH tells you how to install and configure the SSH client. Once you have it installed, you should also configure the SSH tunnels. The tunnels allow your home machine to access the School resources such as the POP3 server and the mail-relay so that your home machine acts as if it is inside the School network. You don't need to use your ISP's email facilities with this solution.

Most people have multiple email accounts. For instance, I have one in the School, one on the University servers, one at home and one at hotmail. Standard mail reading programs like Outlook Express and Netscape allow you to define several accounts, each with its own incoming and outgoing mail server, so that you can manage all your email from a single machine.