A Short Guide to Email Etiquette at University

Dr. Mark Lee, School of Computer Science
University of Birmingham

(12/03/2019 This page was kindly translated into Dutch by Johanne Teerink.)

Why is a guide needed?

Because it's all too common for me to receive an email such as:

From sexyboy82@hotmail.com
Subject: give help!
To: mgl@cs.bham.ac.uk


Most people already know how to write a perfectly good email. There are some basic rules regarding basic English and politeness but apart from that not much else. Despite this, I frequently receive emails which are obscure, rude, bizarre and sometimes completely impossible to understand.

I typically receive 50-60 emails a day and so if you wish a fast, efficient (and polite) response then read on (please!).

There are two sections. "Informal emails" is meant for emails to your friends, colleagues and (since we're pretty informal at university) University staff. "Formal emails" is for when you write formal emails while applying for jobs, interviews, internships or funding etc. It also pays to err towards formality when emailing anybody you don't know outside of the School. Very few people are offended by somebody who is too polite.

Informal emails

  • Start the email by greeting/addressing the person you're writing to. "Dear Mark" is fine. Most members of staff in the School prefer to be called by their first name. If you really insist then "Dear Dr. Lee" is fine too (but makes me sound old).

    If you wish to be more informal then "Hi Mark" or "Hello Mark" are also fine.

    Addressing the person at the start of the email is especially important if you're writing an email which is copied to several people since if you don't then it's possible that everybody will think the email is intended for somebody else (and therefore do nothing).

    If you are writing to a generic mailing list then "Dear mailing list" or "Dear All" is fine.

  • The email should be short and to the point. Waffle is never good and tends to obscure the actual meaning of the email.
  • Politeness is not optional. If you wish to request something then it's polite to either use the word "please" and form your request as a question rather than a command (e.g. write "Can I have an extension" rather than "I want an extension" or "Give me an extension")
  • Use correct grammatical English. Remember you're at University! Also avoid txt-speak and obscure acronyms.
  • Provide enough detail. For example, if you're asking for an extension then say which module you need the extension for. It will save the reader of your email having to write back to ask.
  • Use normal capitalisation. That is names, dates, places, most acronyms and the starts of sentences should be capitalised. Entire sentences shouldn't.
  • Avoid sending any large attachments without warning - especially to mailing lists. Our mailman mailing list server has a relatively low size limit for attachments and anything too big will sit undelivered & unnoticed on the server till an admin logs in to approve it.
  • Sign off with your name. It's also usual to have some "closing salutation" such as "Best regards" or "Yours sincerely". See the discussion in the next section for which to use.

Formal emails

Most of the above still apply only in a stricter manner.

  • You must address the email.

    If you know the name of the person you're writing to and their title then use both i.e. "Dear Dr. Smith". It's a fair assumption that most academic staff will be "Dr." or "Professor" but this is not always the case. Most pedants prefer "Professor" to "Prof."

    If you don't know the name of the person then use "Dear Sir or Madam".

  • Use correct, grammatical English. I realise I'm repeating myself but this is especially important if you're applying for a job etc. Why should anybody employ somebody who has low standards in their professional work? It's also worthwhile using a spell checker for important emails.
  • Sign off with a closing salutation and your full uncontracted first name (i.e even if all your friends call you Mikey - sign off with "Michael") and surname.
  • You may also wish to consider which email address you use. I recently reviewed an application from a student who used an email along the lines of "exprtlover88@botmail.com". This may or may not have been true but it certainly didn't help his application.
There is a fair amount of discussion about which closing salutations are appropriate. If you were writing a formal paper letter than you should use "Yours sincerely" if you address the letter to a particular named individual and "Yours faithfully" if you address the letter to a generic "Sir or Madam". This rule can be applied to formal email as well. However for informal emails the following are also fine: "Best regards", "Best wishes" etc. ("Cheers" is also fine between friends but probably too informal for general use).

Fowler's excellent Guide to Modern English (2nd edition) mentions the closing salutation "I avail myself of this opportunity to renew to you the assurance of my highest consideration". I suspect this is too formal for most situations but if you wish to prove you've made it to the end of this email guide then please feel free to use it next time you email me.

(Last updated 12th March 2008 by mgl)