Email Etiquette 101


Don't Write Like A Jackass

You probably went to school. You probably had a decent education. You probably, at some point, had to learn some basic rules about spelling and grammar. Most of us have this basic foundation in place. So why is it, then, that most people write like complete fucktards when it comes to email? And even more so when it's in a professional setting. You're probably pretty good at what you do, so here are a few basic guidelines to help you start looking like a pro.

Some Basic Rules

1. Keep your standards high.
Uphold the highest professional and grammatical standards when initiating or responding to email. Email messages are legal documents and should be treated as such. Always assume that your email may become public, deposed in a court of law, inadvertently forwarded to a client or colleague, or used by a client to evade contractual obligations.

2. Use business email for business email.
Use company email for business. Use personal email for everything else. There's no need to ever mix the two. Remember, email messages can be legally binding and publically humilating if you're not careful.

3. Always acknowledge receipt.
No matter how trivial it may seem, always acknowledge receipt of an email, whether it’s from a colleague at Bluprint or from a client. Acknowledgment is especially important in the case of attachments. If email is received during normal business hours, a same-day response is expected, even if you are simply acknowledging receipt or to say that you will follow up over the next few days. A simple acknowledgment is all it takes. You don't have to be pedantic and write something like "Receipt confirmed." Rather, get in the habit of some quick responses like "Great, thank you!" or "Thanks for the file!" It typically takes less than 60 seconds to write a response like this, and it's a simple acknowledgment that goes a long way for both your teammates and your clients.

4. Write clear, succinct subject lines.
A subject line should be a subject line. Don't try to cram the body of a message into the subject line.

5. Include project name in subject line.
Because we're a consultancy, we're typically working on multiple projects at any given time. At our office, we've made it a policy for every email subject line to lead with the project name. For example:

PP Dashboard Kickoff Meeting
PP Dashboard Requirements Review
PP Dashboard Dev Planning

6. Know when to use TO vs CC vs BCC.
The TO field should contain primary recipients whom you expect to respond to your message or take action on it. The CC field should contain secondary recipients who are on the email more for CYA or FYI purposes. The BCC field is generally one where we proceed with caution. It's risky to use. You're better off just forwarding the email after the fact.

7. Share information with trusted parties only.
Never provide company, personal, client, vendor, or project information to an outside party or the media. If in doubt, wait to respond and discuss with your teammates first.

8. Use your auto-responder.
Be sure to turn on your out-of-office responder if you are out of the office. When you're back, remember to turn it off.

9. Use an email signature only when appropriate.
Most of the time, signatures are overkill and emails simply need to be signed with your name. Use your judgment. Never include image attachments in your signature. Really.

I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar

Good grammar ain't hard. Really. You just need to learn a few basic rules and then be disciplined aboout it. I have Mrs. Linda Stonebreaker and Mrs. Phyllis Muhelman, my high school teachers, to thank for my unfaltering adherence to the rules of the English langauge.

1. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
Before sending an email, always proofread carefully for clarity, tone, grammar, and spelling.

2. Use proper capitalization.
Always capitalize proper nouns and match spelling and capitalization for person, company, product, and trademark names. Never misspell a client’s name or a company name. When in doubt, look up spelling and/or capitalization on the person’s site or company’s site.

3. Use periods, as appropriate.
Periods belong at the end of a sentence, not at the end of a fragment. Use only one space after a period.

4. Use serial commas, as appropriate.
Use serial commas. The Oxford (or serial) comma is the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items. Here's why:


5. Use commas appropriately, before or after a person’s name.
For some reason, this rule is really lost on most people. Anytime you address someone, use a comma. Some examples:
“Hi, Peggy.”
"Thanks, Bobby!"
“Sally, could you please fix me a scotch?”

6. Know the difference between "&" vs "and."
Most of the time, you should be using "and." An ampersand is a very special character and should be respected as such. Typically, it should only be found in the formal name of a company, not in the middle of one of your compound sentences.

7. Use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes, where appropriate.
Most people really don't know how to use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes appropriately. It's not difficult once you learn the rules. Best place to study up on these rules is the Chicago Manual of Style. Also, learn the keyboard shortcuts for en dash and em dash.

8. Know when to use the noun form vs the verb form for commonly misused phrases.
When it's a noun, it's one word. When it's an action, it's two words. Some common examples:

NOUN: “Click the login button.”
VERB: “Please log in to use the system.”

NOUN: “There was no setup required; I'm using that service again!”
VERB: “Don't set up my computer if you don't know what you're doing.”

NOUN: “The backup disk was full. I didn't know. Ugh.”
VERB: “If you don't back up your stuff on CrashPlan, then you're an idiot.”

NOUN: “The back end of that truck was toast!”
MODIFIER: “There's nothing I love more than a great back-end developer.”

Munawar Ahmed is a user experience consultant based in New York City. She works on S, M, L, and XL projects, from indie startups to mega-corps. She's friendly, most days. Get in touch.