Email Etiquette

Emails are a sphere of communication which is crying out for the imposition of regular form

Michael Gove wants to restore to the Department of Justice some sense of correct form for the letters that his civil servants send out. But what about emails? Here is an enormous, uncontrolled sphere of communication that is crying out for the imposition of regular form.

Already email writers have introduced one element of their own: they have given fresh life to the exclamation mark. Emails are spattered with them. They give a jolt of emotion to what is otherwise a bare, expressionless message, and are used to convey many different feelings, from friendliness (Hi!) to gratitude (Thank you!) to amazement (He really did say that!). They can look a bit hysterical, but they do a human job.

However there is a larger, trickier question. How do you lay out an email? What can give it some sort of order? Does it just have to be a sprawl?

For some time now, I have laid out my own emails consistently. I start with Dear X, and follow that with a space, a short dash, and another space. Then follows my message. At the end of it comes another short dash, then Yrs, Derwent (or whatever form of my name I want to use).

It gives me real satisfaction to give the email this shape, and to know that my correspondents always see it when they hear from me. A tiny scrap of new order in the world! Other people may be able to devise, or indeed may already use, some better format than this. But I suggest that if email writers regularly use one, it might lead, little by little, by a sort of social osmosis, to a generally accepted style such as letter writers used to use. That was so thoroughly established that people actually used to buy manuals from which to learn it. Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela started out in 1740 as a letter-writing guide for girls. 

People certainly feel a desire to use punctuation to provide some shape for their communications, even in the formless world of text messages. One of these days we might even see schoolteachers giving their classes lessons in “How to write an email”. I am sure this is something that Mr Gove, in his previous incarnation as Education Secretary, would have been only too happy to provide.

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