Where Eagles and Herons Watch Dogs (32KB)

Quoting on Email Lists

Quote, but only as necessary

Attribute your quotes; Trim your posts

How to Quote and Keep Friends
How to Trim your Posts

Lessons from the School of Hard Knocks

Second draft, Saturday, 10 September, 2005

I have now added a section here on the mechanical skills you can use to help you present your post in very readable form, while at the same time, "trimming" (that means, deleting!) extraneous, repeated text that is merely distracting, therefore, annoying, to your reader! I hope this article will assist you. You can use the mechanical skills I describe here in many other applications as well as in posts to email lists or Internet newsgroups.

The two main sections of this article, then, are the first, on attributing the quotes you include in your post, and second, on the mechanical skills you can use to make your post concise and relevant to your topic. When people ask you to "trim your posts," what they mean is, they don't want to read repeated text again and again! Trimming down your reply message, so as to quote only what you need in order to make your point makes your message as attractive as possible to readers interested in your topic.

My focus here is on how to quote acceptably for most any email list or group, and particularly, how to use Outlook Express or Eudora to attribute the quotes you use, as accurately as possible.

Orientation to Quoting and Trimming

Outlook Express and Eudora
or other software that will quote text

I base this article on Microsoft Outlook Express and on Eudora, running on a PC; that is, a machine running Microsoft Windows. Similar principles may apply to Apple or Mac machines, running an Apple or Mac OS (operating system).

Other software, including some web-based mail systems, will also permit you to quote text from the message you reply to, to attribute the quotes, and to trim (delete extraneous text) in much the same way as these offline readers do, so those using other software may also find this article helpful.

I use Eudora as my email client - that is, software that allows me to download posts from email lists, read those posts offline (while not connected to the Internet), to reply offline, and then to upload my replies after connecting again to the Internet.

Alternatively, I can sit online, picking up mail every 15 minutes or so, reading and replying as the moment suits. Eudora's function, though, is that of an offline reader (-and-replier)

Offline reading and replying differs from web mail, where you go to a web site, read posts "online," and reply also online. I am not covering online, or web-based, operations in this article.

Microsoft Outlook Express allows the same, and includes similar facilities for reading Usenet newsgroups. Because I prefer to avoid Outlook Express, I use Forte Agent, a newsreader, when I read or post to newsgroups

These three different software packages work similarly to each other; each has sufficient help to assist you in posting; each will insert quote marks as needed when you quote from a post you're replying to; each will attribute the quotes automatically. However, various flukes present in the posts you reply to might require a bit of extra attention from you, if you're to attribute quotes correctly.

Because my focus here is email lists, I leave use of Forte Agent or similar newsreaders for another time, and perhaps another place. Here, my first topic is principles for choosing quotes, and then, some specific assistance in creating your reply-post, that is, one which quotes from a previous post.

Attributing Quotes

Why Quote?

Unlike letters written on paper, electronic letters allow you to quote from the message you are replying to, with the greatest of ease. You don't have to re-type the text you're replying to, if you use the Reply button in your software. When you press the Reply button, assuming you've configured your software to do this, the software brings in the entire message you will reply to, but it adds some form of quote marks to the left side of the page.

In Outlook Express, these look like ">"; in Eudora, you see instead what are called "excerpt bars," which look like thin grey lines that extend vertically up and down the page (screen), covering the entire quoted area in the original message (the post you are replying to).

A slight oddity is that if you send yourself a message from Outlook Express, and use Eudora to read it, you will then see excerpt bars in Eudora, instead of ">" quote marks. However, you need not concern yourself with those appearances, as long as you understand that excerpt bars mean the same thing as ">" quote marks.

Quoting from the previous message orients both you and the reader of your post to the topic. It's wonderfully handy!

Quoting helps ensure that you and those who read your post can find previous posts in the same thread (topic, or subject), so as to follow it better. In any group or forum discussion, quoting provides links, trains of thought, from one post to another. helping unify the discussion.

Why attribute your quotes?

If you quote from the previous message, that bestows on you an ethical requirement to attribute the quotes you use.

Why? Well, how do you know the person you're quoting lays no value on what s/he posted? Or perhaps s/he lays a different value on it from what you take from it

Every human may assign slightly different meanings - or values, too, to certain written words.

Because it's also necessary for politeness and usefulness to an email list that we should all trim the posts we quote - not quote the entire message, but rather, make selections from it - we are faced with some kind of value assignment - often merely in our selection - that we give to the words we quote.

How can we cope with this apparent dilemma? It's really rather easy to have our cake and eat it too. All we need to do is. select as suits us from the post we quote, keeping our selections as small as we can, and then - to attribute the quotes in a way that makes the original message (the one we're replying to) accessible to all list-members, so they can go back and find that original.

It's not our decision to make, to assign a value to the material we quote. That decision is up to the person who wrote the message we're quoting.

Giving credit
Respecting copyright when quoting

Even on a widely-propagated email list, people own what they write; they hold copyright on it. We need to respect that copyright. It's normal to permit quoting from the same email list back to that same list. Any other use of quotes or posts from the list, such as forwarding to another list, or "cross-posting," requires permission from the original writer - the person we are quoting. So, ask permission of the original writer if you would like to cross-post to another list, or forward a mesasge elsewhere. Usually, a writer will extend permission for you to do so, always assuming, of course, that your intent is friendly.

Email lists also have "owners," that is, people who administer them. Some of these ask that you obtain permission from them, also, before you cross-post or forward a message from the list or group. There may be very good ethical reasons for that requirement.

People have all kinds of reasons they might want credit for the quotes we include in our messages. We couldn't possibly know all the possible reasons they might want credit. In short, it is not our place to make decisions concerning the value of a post to its writer.

Forms of Attribution

If you use Outlook Express or Eudora as I describe here, you need not worry much about the form of your attribution; the software will provide the form all by itself. How delightfully easy that makes it for us to attribute correctly - with a few caveats, unfortunately, but even those, we can work around.

I won't try to cover work-arounds in this draft of this page, but perhaps will add any later. You can, though, use any of the mechanical skills I describe below to change details of your attributions.

Eudora and Outlook Express will take the identification of the person who wrote the message you're replying to from the From field of the original message header. Both will also use the Date field from the message header to show the date and time of the original message. Outlook Express will show the original subject line. Eudora does not, but it adds "Re:" to the subject line in the message header for a first reply to a new thread (topic).

How to Reply-and-Quote with Attributions

That Wonderful Tool: the Reply Button

These remarks apply both to Eudora and to Outlook Express; where they differ, I mention the differences.

Let's say you're ambling along, reading messages offline, using Outlook Express or Eudora. You see a post you want to reply to.

You have the message open; you're reading it. Here are the mechanics of replying that should result in your composing a post that quotes with needed attributions, and trims your post to acceptable quoting levels for most email lists or groups.

Summary of how to reply for best effect

  1. Press the Reply button or icon or use your keyboard shortcut to reply to the message.
  2. Now you have the entire message you are replying to on your screen. Your reply-message contains an attribution to the person who wrote the message you are replying to. The entire original message you are replying to is quoted (with quote marks, assuming you have set up your software to allow the quote marks). This is a good time to trim, or delete, any quoted text you are sure you don't need to include in your reply. See the section below, on trimming, to help yourself further.
  3. Move your cursor around in the quoted material and press Enter twice, to make blank lines, into which you can then type your new text. Type your new text as desired
  4. Check the To field you can see at the top of the message header area, to make sure you're sending the post to where you want it to go.
  5. Check the Subject field; by preference, don't alter it, unless you have drastically changed the subject; altering the subject heaidng will break the thread (the topic connections), making it hard for people to find previous related messages.
  6. If you have drastically altered the topic, do change the subject heading (place your cursor on the Subject Line in the message header area, and then type your new subject heading).
  7. Scroll through your entire post to make sure you have trimmed quotes as far as you can, and that you've remembered to delete from the end of your message to the end of the original file (thus deleting group footers, sometimes advertisements, and any part of the original message you still haven't trimmed and don't plan to quote).
  8. If you don't have a signature prepared so your software will insert it, sign your post. (Most posts benefit from signatures.)
  9. Send your post!

Notice your software made the attributions for you. Outlook Express suffers from Original Message Syndrome, putting in the words "Original Message" enclosed within a series of hyphens. You should be able to delete that line, but if you do, you should probably substitute text for it, indicating that the few lines that follow identify the writer of the post you're replying to, the Date and Time of the original message, and the subject line of the original message.

Suggestion for accuracy
and helpful trimming

If, when you compose your post, you delete all quotes previous to the post you are replying to, and include only the most recent quotes (shown by a single quote-mark or a single excerpt bar), you will automatically avoid mis-attributing any quotes that might have been misattribtuted previously, whether by the previous poster, of the one before that.

However, if the writer you are replying to did not attribute quotes, everything from the original message, the one you're replying to, will appear as though the writer of that message wrote it. I cannot myself feel much sympathy for a person who complains, "I didn't write that!" if that peron has not somehow clearly attributed the quotes s/he used.

You still need to be attentive, because not all software produces quote marks for every line, and the automatic quoting produced by Outlook Express or Eudora might still lead you to error. Therefore, you still need to examine the original message to which you're replying, to make sure the automated quote marks designate the quotes correctly, as far as you can make out.

"Trimming" posts: mechanical skills

To "Trim a post" means to delete all text that's not necessary for us to include to make our posts easy to read and to cover our topics with some semblance of efficiency.

What readers find annoying on an email list, a newsgroup or a forum is to read the same text over and over again. You can imagine; if one topic gets discussed a lot, and people keep quoting entire previous posts, or even large portions of them, the same text, re-quoted, keeps appearing, over and over again. So, as a matter of simple courtesy, we need to learn to delete quoted text that we don't immediatly need to refer to.

The following material should, I hope, equip you with the mechanical skills you can use to help yourself delete unnecessary quotes from your post. Also, you can add text to your post from other sources, so I include skills that can help you do that. You can select text from anywhere on your system, or even elsewhere, if you're online while composing your message. You can then copy that selected text to your Windows (or Mac OS) clipboard, and paste it into your message. A few cautions apply; you are responsible for respecting copyrights, and also for using only plain text in forums or lists that require only plain text (that is, DOS Text, or ASCII text, which includes alphabetic and numeric characters, punctuation, and a few symbols, but excludes word-processor codes that format text inside a word processor, or HTML codes that format text on a web page.

Select text, copy or cut, paste, delete

When a list-owner asks that you "trim your posts," s/he means please not to quote more than is necessary for you to be making your points.

The first step is for you to learn a few mechanical skills; namely, how to select text, which then appears highlighted, then, to copy or cut or delete that text.

I use Microsoft Windows, and commands for Apple or Mac machines might be somewhat different. Where in Windows applications (programs), you would hold down the Control key, I gather that on a Mac or Apple machine, you would hold down the Command key.

Select text

To select text, place your cursor at the beginning (or end) of the text you want to select, and then hold down your (left) mouse-button, and drag it till it has highlighted the portion of text you want to do something to (copy, or cut, or delete). Then release the mouse button.

If you need to change your selection, just click anywhere in your window, to un-highlight (deselect) your current selection.

Copy, Cut, Paste, Delete

To copy selected text, press Ctrl-C (on a Mac, Command-C).

When you "copy" text, it is placed on your Windows "clipboard." You can't see it unless you have a special program that will show you what is on the clipboard.

Be forewarned; if you copy text with the intention of pasting it somewhere else, and then you copy something else to the Windows clipboard before you paste it in the new location, you will lose what was on the clipboard previously, because Windows holds only one clipboard item at a time. If you copy something new there, the previous contents are gone forever.


To cut selected text, press Ctrl-X. Text you cut is deleted from its current location, and also saved to the Windows clipboard. It remains on the clipboard until you copy or cut something different; then the different selection gets put on the clipboard, deleting the previous content.


To paste text that's on the Windows clipboard, first, you need to place your cursor at the exact location to which you want to paste. When you have placed the cursor in the correct location, press Ctrl-V. That hardly mekes sense to me as a mnemonic - unless I think of the V as an arrowhead. Then suddenly it sort of makes sense, as though the V is pointing to where you want to paste the contents of the clipboard.

Notice that you can paste text to any document you have open in any program. You can even start a new program while you have text on the clipboard, open a document, and paste into the newly-opened document.

Pasting precautions:
Formatting characters from word processors

The following implications hold true if you are composing a message: if you select text in a word-processor, copy it to the clipboard, and then paste into the message you re writing, you need to pay attention to the selection you make in your word-processor document. You are likely to pick up formatting codes from the document, and those will be pasted into your email message along with the text.

If the list you are posting to requires only plain text (that is, you must not post formatting codes), it would be best to open your word-processor document, and save the file you want to paste from in plain, or ASCII, or DOS, text, using "Save As..." to give this new text-version a new name, so as not to overwrite your original document and lose the formatting your word processor has in place.

Once you have used "Save As...," you can then select text in your document without risking copying invisible formatting codes to the selection you put on your clipboard.

If sometimes you see strange characters in messages on a list, those are almost certainly formatting codes the person who posted the message copied from a word-processor and pasted into the message.


Deleting selected text is easy. Once the text you want to delete is highlighted, press your Delete key. Pouf! Gone!

Trimming your post

To trim is simply to delete text you don't need

Once you have mastered the mechanical skills of selecting text and using copy, cut, paste, or delete, you are all set to "trim" any post where you have used the Reply button in order to attribute your quotes properly.

So, after you have your post put together pretty well as you like it, scroll through it from the top, making the checks I've suggested already: is the message addressed to the right place? to the email list where you intend it to go? Or, if you are replying to a list-message, but are sending privately, does the To field in the message header contain the right email address? And is the subject heading appropriate?

Now, in the body of the message, you can scroll down. Have you left blank lines between paragraphs? If not, please place your cursor at the end of a paragraph, and press Enter once, to make a blank line. That makes reading easier for people.

Is there any quoted text you don't need? If so, select that text and then press your Delete key.

Did you miss saying something you meant to say? If so, you can type it now. As before, place your cursor where you want the new text to appear; then if need be, press Enter to make more space into which to type. Of course, you can type into the middle of anything you've already written, too.

The Ultimate - Culmination
Delete to end of file!

Most email lists have some kind of "footer" text at the end of every message. That text is simply repeated from one message to the next. Your readers don't need two or more copies of the same footer in the same message! When your message is posted, the list-footer will be added at the end of the text you send. so if there's any footer material left on your screen in the window in which you're composing your message, you need to delete that!

Here's a lovely little trick. Place your cursor at the very end of your message, and if your signature is showing on-screen, at the end of your signature. (If your software doesn't automatically add your signature, type your signature before doing this last mechanical operation.) Once your cursor is placed at the end of what you want to send, press your left mouse button, hold it down, and drag it downward as far as it will go. That should highlight everything that remains in your message composition window.

Because you began by placing the cursor at the end of what you want to send, presumably, all the rest, everything that now gets highlighted, is what you don't want to send. Therefore, once it's highlighted, press your Delete key. Pouf! Gone!


You've composed your email, made the checks, used your mechanical skills to select and delete text that wouldn't contribute anything to your post, typed your lovely contribution to the list you're posting to, signed it, and perhaps you've usted a spell-checker.

And you've done three all-important checks: that the quotes are properly attributed, that the message is directed (in the To field of the header) to where you want it to go - and you have deleted whatever is left after the end of your message!

Unless your message requires your later review because the topic might create tension, you are ready to send!

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