A Brief Guide to Email Etiquette

For School and Work

Email communication is indispensable for contemporary professionals, but emailers often do a poor job representing themselves and their concerns to others. For example, this short article notes research suggesting that though people think they understand the tone of email messages 90% of the time, we really only "get" the emotional tone of email about half the time. This longer article addresses similar studies. The big point for students and professionals: we need to work hard to have professional tone, content, and clarity in our professional communications. The suggestions below should help you achieve that in your emails.


  1. Be brief.
  2. Avoid mixing subjects. (If possible, address only one topic or issue in an email.)
  3. Make sure you identify yourself if the receiver might have any doubt about who you are.
  4. Use proper spelling and punctuation. (Avoid ALL CAPS. Don't use all lower case letters. Don't use instant messaging shorthand like "imho," "lol," and the like, if there is any chance the receiver will either not understand or find the abbreviations too informal.)
  5. Use specific, informative subject lines.
  6. Never include unnecessary graphic backgrounds and attachments. 
  7. Never "flame" anyone in a professional situation.
  8. Assume that your email will one day be read by everyone on the planet.
  9. Avoid marking a message as "high priority" unless you really, really mean it, and, even then, think twice.  (It's like barging into someone's office yelling, "You gotta help me, NOW.")
  10. If you use a signature file, keep it short.
  11. If you use a signature file in a professional situation, keep it impersonal.
  12. Avoid unprofessional email addresses in professional contexts. "SexyDude2020@hotmail.com" will not win you any points with the boss. (On the topic of email addresses, this post is also helpful.)

Asking and Answering Questions

  1. It should be clear what you're asking for or how you'd like the recipient to respond.
  2. Make your action requests clear and specific.
  3. Make your information requests clear and specific, too.
  4. If you're asking for help, make sure you've already exhausted your personal resources.
  5. When you answer a question, supply context, if only by quoting or noting the question asked.
  6. If you're requesting a meeting, provide some possible (and reasonable) potential meeting times.


  1. Avoid big attachments, if possible. Certain online services--like DropSend (the free version), MailBigFile, and Hightail--will allow you to make a large file available to a message recipient without trying to stuff it into the recipient's mailbox.
  2. Make your attachments readable on as many computers as possible. Often that means saving them in .rtf or .pdf format.
  3. ALWAYS clearly identify any attachments, by format and content. (Unidentified attachments in emails will make alert email users concerned that they're receiving a a virus-infected file.)
  4. ALWAYS give your attachments informative, specific file names. "English Paper.doc" is a terrible title.  "Profile Paper by John Doe.doc" is a pretty good one.)
  5. If it's a short response of some kind, you should probably put the text in the email message itself, rather than in an attachment. Ask the recipient what s/he'd prefer if you aren't sure.

Responding and Forwarding

  1. In responses, make sure you are answering all questions, or note that you are not doing so.
  2. Unless they are necessary to the present conversation, don't leave a trail of old emails at the bottom of your new email.
  3. If it is necessary or helpful, though, leave in the trail of old emails.
  4. Avoid responding to an old email without putting in a new specific, informative subject line.
  5. Be extremely careful (and courteous) with "Reply to All."
  6. Don't forward someone else's message without permission.
  7. If you're upset, sleep on it before you send it.

Specifically for Emailing Professors

  1. Consider putting your section number or meeting time in the subject line.  "Profile Paper for John Doe, ENG 103-22."
  2. Especially before you've established a relationship and reputation with your professor, always include a greeting. "Dr. Jones--" or "Hello, Mr. Jones." or "Dear Professor Jones" all work fine (though the first two options--the less formal ones--may be your best choices).
  3. It is also important in the time before you've established a relationship and reputation with your professor to include the course number and meeting time somewhere in your email, possibly underneath your name at the bottom of the email. 
  4. Review the "Asking and Answering Questions" section, above.
  5. Whatever it is, ask politely.
  6. In a brief follow-up email, say "thank you" and let your teacher know that you appreciate his or her time and work.

Original Sources

The following online sources are due credit for helping me think about all this.

Michael Leddy's "How to Email a Professor" post at Orange Crate Art.

Merlin Mann's "Writing Sensible Email Messages" post and his "Five Email Tics I'd Love for You to Lose" post at 43 Folders.

Bert Webb's "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People with Email" post at Open Loops.

Stever Robbins's article "Tips for Mastering Email Overload" at the Harvard Business School website.

Matt May's "Email: An Author's Guide" post at A Blue Flavored Blog.***

And this little email etiquette site.

Also of Interest / Further Reading

Purdue's OWL page on email etiquette.

And this site on Netiquette.

"Write a Perfect Email" at the Wired "How To" Wiki.

Whitworth University's Phone and Email Etiquette Page.

Compiled/Created by Fred Johnson. Last update: 4/15.