Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Writing for the Internet—Respect for the Common Email

One part of writing for the Internet that a lot of people miss is the lowly email. This method of correspondence has too long been neglected and ignored. Because it’s possible to reach so many through this simple delivery system we’ve somehow relegated it to the unimportant.
It is actually one of the most vital ways we use to reach out to others.
The reasons for this neglect are too numerous to innumerate in full, but just a few are listed here:
  • The multitude of email we send and receive each day has…well…made us lazy. We no longer pay attention to the common principles of grammar. We dash off missives full of sentence fragments, misspellings and punctuation gone wild.
  • The conversational tone has reduced our correspondence to an undecipherable mélange of clichés and half-conveyed information. We run thoughts and sentences together with the assumption the reader will get enough of what we’re trying to say, to do what we want them too.
  • The audience we commonly target with email generally consists of close friends and associates, and we impose on their relationships with us to cover our haste. What we’ve forgotten is they’re just as busy and the time required to decipher our messages is, at least an irritation, and at most an imposition.

So what’s a busy person to do? Below is a list of common email mistakes that only take a few moments to catch with a quick scan and can greatly increase the respect your correspondence, and you, receive.

Common Email Mishaps
  • Misspelled names. This is basic and it amounts to a first impression for the email, as well as for us, if this is the first time we’ve corresponded with the recipient.
  • The overuse of exclamation points. Okay, I admit it. It’s an easy way to get our point across, and I’m definitely guilty of this. But really, the more often it’s used the less effective it becomes.
  • Extra or inconsistent spacing between sentences. In this day and time (and for those of you who missed it—the past 15 years) sentences should only have ONE space between them, not two. I know this seems picky, but when you’re glancing at a paragraph the inconsistency is quite noticeable.
  • The confusion of when to use THAT versus WHO. The word that, is used following a thing (or a group). While the word who, is used when referring to a person. 
  • Trying to say too much at once. I know we’re busy, but slow down and use separate sentences (or even paragraphs) for addressing unrelated items.
  • Consistent information. This is a big one. When you’re giving a list of information, like upcoming events, give the same information—in the same order—for each event. Otherwise your recipient is left scrambling for times and locations. It’s also easier for us to accidently omit the needed information if it’s listed haphazardly.
  • Incorrect use of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. Here’s a quick grammar lesson.
    • Hyphens (also incorrectly referred to as dashes) are used in compound words, or words that are linked together as one thing. Example: five-year-old girl.
    • En dashes are slightly longer and are used to separate numbers. Example: from October 7 – 8. You format this by typing the number, space, dash, space, number, space.
    • Em dashes are the longest of the three and are used when you’re expanding or modifying a statement. Example: give the same information—in the same order—for each event. In Microsoft Word, you format this by typing the word, then dash, dash, next word and space. In Pages, you format this by pressing the shift, option, dash keys at the same time.

  • Incorrect use of ellipsis (…). This punctuation mark is used to denote a break in thought or speech. It is NOT interchangeable with the em dash.
  • Use of periods at the end of a bulleted list. According the AP Style Guide (the general guide that governs writing for the Internet) a bulleted list should include the use of a period at the end of each bullet point. There are levels of acceptance for this guideline, and most people don’t add a period at the end of a one word bullet point. BUT the important thing here is consistency. If you end even one of the bullet points with a punctuation mark—like a question mark—you must end them ALL with a punctuation mark.
  • Use of contractions. While this isn’t a requirement, it is something that should be considered, especially if you’re writing in a conversational tone. We speak in contractions, but we do not naturally write in contractions. After you’ve written an email, give it a quick read—out loud—to find the places you would normally use a contraction.
  • Common comma usage. A book could be written about how to correctly use commas, and most of it would be considered wrong by the next grammarian you consult. But there are still a few hard and fast rules. Here are two: 
    • When you have a compound sentence, connected with a conjunction, you use a comma if the second part of the sentence is a complete sentence.
    • A serial comma is NOT used with the AP Style Guide. Example: red, white and blue.
  • Disorganized method of delivery. This one is more of a general concern. But it’s important to construct your email in an orderly fashion. Group topics in paragraphs and keep the flow of the information logical.

When we pay attention to these small issues, we convey an attitude of respect toward our audience. With just a small amount of effort, we show how we value their time, and it invites a respectful consideration of the information we’re sending. 

So how about you, any pet peeves when it comes to emails you send or receive?
Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Edie, thank you for this. I'm guilty on several counts.

  2. Thanks for the period after bulleted item thing. I get confused about that. Sometimes an item looks fine without a period, sometimes it doesn't look right, then I'm left wondering which way to go. Now I know!

    RE: Pet Peeve: I had a co-worker once who wrote run on paragraphs and her emails were a splattering of dense, rambling black on white screen. But after I fussed enough times, she started breaking up her paragraphs. *-)

  3. Ughh guilty, guilty, guilty. Especially with the ellipsis and dashes. I DO get "that vs who" right, though :)

  4. I am a stickler for correct grammar, so I am granteful to learn how to correctly punctuate bullet points. Thanks!

  5. I am so surprised by the number of people at my day job (all professionals) who do not keep their work emails professional or use proper grammar.

  6. Thank you all for your comments and additions to this post. I'm still without Internet, except for my phone so my replies will be short. But I appreciate you all so much! Blessings, E

  7. Guilty as charged on multiple counts. I keep the AP Style Guide and The Elements of Style close by my writing desk so my ADHD personality has multiple anchors.

  8. Thank you, Edie. I have much to learn. :)

  9. Edie,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Everything you listed is a pet peeve of mine.

    One thing you didn't list that really annoys (and often confuses) me is the use of abbreviations and texting shortcuts in emails. Personally, if I don't have the time or interest in writing everything out, I don't send the email.

    If I get emails with lots of abbreviations or texting shortcuts, I'm more likely to skip it altogether than take the time to decipher it.

  10. Printed this one. Need to keep it in my Stylebook. Thanks!