What is so powerful that it could spoil your customer relationships, blemish your reputation, entangle you in a legal battle, or even put you out of work?

Email is that powerful tool. To maintain control over it, you must know the rules of email etiquette.

Email, although a form of written communication, behaves much like verbal communication. Email can be expressed quickly, and a response returned within seconds.

Unlike verbal communication, however, email has no backup messaging system, which is what nonverbal cues provide as a way to help clarify the meaning of your message.

How does this matter? The words you use in composing an email must be intentional, precise, and complete.

At the same time, email is indeed in the family of printed communication. Speed and interactivity make email enticing—but remember that email is also permanent. A traceable record is created. That's a fact.

Electronic Business Identity

Logos and stationery are carefully selected to complement a business brand or identity—imagine sending a business letter without your letterhead and contact information. Since email is used in business situations, it should maintain that standard of presentation: Include your logo, title, and contact information in business emails.

Most email etiquette mistakes happen when haste and emotion override common sense.

Foremost, remember respect. Write the word "respect" on a sticky note and paste it to your laptop. Respect in email includes being mindful of a reader's time. Stick to the point. Use "Reply All" only if you need "ALL" to reply back to you. And always check the address in your "To" line to be sure it is correct.

(Sources such as the "Netiquette Home Page" from Albion.com, NetM@nners.com and the Yale University Library Web site cover email etiquette along with other business writing rules.)

Email etiquette tends to fall into four areas for discussion: content, style, tone, and grammar.

Effective Email Content

When composing your email, think in terms of a short staircase, and the door at the top opens when the recipient clicks the "Reply" button.

Step 1

The first step is critical, and it's your Subject Line. If this step is not constructed properly, the message will fall flat and your effort to communicate will tumble.

Subject lines need to be precise, complete, and accurate. Write your subject line as if it is the only piece of your email that the recipient will read. Express your ideas concisely and vividly. Be specific.


  • Ineffective subject line: "Important Message, please read."
  • Improved subject line: "Conference committee meeting tomorrow at 10."

Step 2

The second step is the first sentence in the body of your email. Always include a greeting, and always include the name of your intended recipient. Doing so is proper etiquette and a display of respect; it also presents immediate assurance that the email has reached the intended person.


  • Ineffective greeting: "Hey."
  • Improved greeting: "Good morning, Thomas."

Step 3

The third step is the body of your email. Here is where you need to be careful. As a rule, don't write it in an email if you wouldn't say it over the phone. Show respect for the reader's time; be brief. Read the email out loud before sending. Ask yourself, what do I expect the response to be? If you want the reader to respond, say so. And if you need a response within a certain time frame, say that too. Never assume.


  • Ineffective body copy: "Right. But I can't help thinking every time I see her that she needs to send that item back to its owner. I remember when I used to have one of those, and my mom always told me it looked awful and was a nuisance, and I can't stand looking at it. Anyway, the rules are in the box. Take a look."
  • Improved body copy: "The rules are in your inbox. Please read them and respond before the end of the day."

Proper Email Style and Tone

Your email writing style will vary according to the situation. Ask yourself, "In what capacity am I writing?" Are you writing as an employee? Are you writing as a business prospect? Are you a boss, a customer, or a partner?

Remember that in business, all business email is business email. Assume your correct professional position each time you write an email. It is best to avoid being too casual.

Judith Kallos of NetM@nners.com says, "Never assume a position of informality in your business email...for commercial/business reasons, one should communicate as if email is on their company letterhead at all times. This is your business's image you are branding."

Your style is your posture. It is one of the first things people notice. Make sure that you are standing up straight in your emails.

But all the body language in the world cannot alleviate the tone of an angry email message. Never send an angry message. Those situations need to be handled in person.

As a rule, emails should be brief. But if your sentences are too brief, they can create a sense of rudeness. However, if your sentences are too long, the message becomes dull and loses its punch.

Read your email out loud before sending.

Email Grammar and Sentence Structure

Respect the rules of grammar and earn respect within your business community. Punctuate properly; and don't over-punctuate.

According to The Little Pink Book of Etiquette by Ruth Cullen, common grammar mistakes include the following:

  • When subjects and verbs don't agree (e.g., The cat play with his toy mouse.)
  • Ending sentences in a preposition that's not necessary (e.g., Where are you at?)
  • Making up words or using vernacular (e.g., irregardless, ain't)
  • Using slang to excess (e.g., dude, uh-huh, yeah)

Writing for email is similar to writing for news. Use an inverted-pyramid organization for sentence and paragraph structure. Your most important information comes first, at the top, and above the "fold." Next-important information is placed in the second paragraph, and so on.

Also, remember that people don't read emails; they scan them. Use bullet points and subheads to help people understand your message more quickly.

Compared with instant messaging and text messaging, email is the more formal medium. Save the abbreviations, slang, and idle chat for your informal communications.

* * *

With business email, following the rules of etiquette may mean taking just one more minute before you hit "Send." Be respectful, proofread before sending, check grammar and spelling, and verify the address to which you are sending. Ultimately, this can be the minute that saves your relationship, retains your customer, or keeps your job.

Your email is your image: Take control.

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Kathryn Towner is co-owner of WinCommunication /WinM@il. She has 20 years' experience in sales and marketing; her current business specializes in Internet marketing and permission-based email.