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Interleave Responses

There are three main schools of replying:

  • Above the quote (top posting);
  • Below the quote (bottom posting);
  • Interleaved within the quote (interleaved posting).

These all have their benefits and are good in different situations. We advocate use of interleaving within the quote. In all cases mark a quote with indenting by a greater than (>) symbol.

Above the quote (top posting)

This style seems to be popular in busy offices. When you write your message, a short reply comes back. You can see it immediately when you go to preview the email - no scrolling, no opening, it is right there in plain view. When there is a single topic being discussed and your reply is short this is the best method. Though, for most mailing lists, shorts replies are usually not appropriate on the mailing list; so, for most cases, top posting on a mailing list is considered unncessary and rude to other members of the mailing list.

There is a major disincentive to top posting. After a couple of exchanges, email after email is appended, one above the other. This may make for convenient bed time reading, but it does make the email rather weighty. Consider trimming off older messages and not using top posting at all.

Consider the following example for exactly why top posting is so frowned upon:

A: Yes.
>Q: Are you sure?
>>A: Because it reverses the logical flow of conversation.
>>>Q: Why is top posting frowned upon?

If each of these items were several paragraphs long, it makes it mightly impossible to follow the thread, to follow the thought process and intent of the successive emails.

Below the quote (bottom posting)

Putting a small reply below a verbatim quote of your entire message is one of the worst styles of quoting and is extremely frustrating. Not only is the reply hard to find because it is hidden somewhere below the entire original message that has been quoted and wedged between a quote and a signature, but the recipient has to wade through something he wrote to find your answer, something that probably contains more content that is needed to be quoted in the response.

Imagine a person using a screen reader. They just sent you this email, and now you are sending it back? Should they have to read what they wrote a second time? It is possible to skip ahead, but it is far more difficult than for sighted people. It also wastes a lot of time. Trim what you quote in response and it makes bottom posting acceptable; consider the context of your message and the recipient(s).

Take a look at the following example of what not to do:

From: Dunderhead
To: (account holders mailing list)
Subject: Re: Big Brother

Orwell wrote:

>It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking
>thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort
>to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of
>Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of
>gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled
>cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too
>large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted
>simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of
>about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome
>features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift.
>Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the
>electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the
>economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights
>up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above
>his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On
>each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous
>face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so
>contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS
>WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Yup, sure thing.

Chief Architect
C grade philosophy paper writer
Check out my web site! And, my mother's web site!
Old phone number: +23-4-567-8901
New phone number: +12-3-456-7890

Hard to read and understand is an understatement Could you figure out what the message he was trying to get across was? Did you even find it?

Consider the following example of the same, though, cleaned up and easier to understand:

From: Dunderhead
To: (account holders mailing list)
Subject: Re: Big Brother

Orwell wrote:

>It was a bright cold day in April,
>BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Yup, sure thing, he is watching...

Chief Architect
New phone number: +64-3-872-2611

Make it clear, concise, and in context what you are trying to say. Remove content that does not pertain to what you are trying to say. And, consider, on a mailing list, clipping long quotes is not only acceptable but practically required.

To not do such edits on your messages in considered rude and disrespectful of the other members of the mailing list.

Interleaved posting

This is the most favored posting method online and is the best for mailing lists and messages which contain more than one point. It works like a conversation: the quoted comment and the reply.

It is most important that you trim the quoting so that enough context is given, and only enough context is given. Many times someone will quote an entire five page email to comment on a point in the last paragraph. If the point is in the last paragraph, remove everything but the last paragraph. Save the four and a half pages of reading for the other members of the mailing list.

Interleaved messages usually go on for several replies and quotes, so be sure to remove dead wood and fix line wrapping where appropriate. Also leave in enough attribution if more than one author is involved. This also lends itself to drift in subjects (threads).

Learning is done best through an example, so here is an example of this style:

From: John Doe
To: (account holders mailing list)
Subject: Re: Account Status

Mark Smith wrote:

> have been worried that his account is overdue

Yes, I see that a complaint was made on the 13th.

> Have you contacted the repossession man for retrieval

It is all arranged. I'll send him the details this afternoon.

John Doe
Account Manager

So this is only one message, but from reading the sensible interleaved quoting you can pick this up anytime and feel as if you were there in the midst of a meeting between these two people.

This way of reading it like a conversation makes interleaved quoting the best for mailing lists and also for general chatty email between friends.

When you quote, you are doing it to provide context. Requiring your readers to scroll down and then back, repeatedly (as they attempt to figure out what the heck you are talking about), is a rather difficult way for you to make the context available. Providing the context up front will get you better results.

There is no way to build a threaded discussion with top posting. Top posting severely inhibits others from understanding the conversation, because the context of the conversation is out of order, as in broken.

It is far easier for your recipients to follow the ongoing conversation in a message that uses quotes interleaved quoting. Consider the following example:

>Quote of one point

Your response

>Quote of another point

Your response to the second point

If you were to use top posting, it would look like this:

Oh! Now it makes sense to me. Okay! No more top-posting for me!

>It is annoying because it reverses the normal order of conversation.
>In fact, many people ignore top posted messages.
>>What is so wrong with that?
>>>That is posting your response before the message you are quoting.
>>>>People keep bugging me about "top posting." What does that mean?

For a really extreme example, consider the following message:

I'll see you at Jane's wedding.

Well, see ya soon.


Ten thousand a year.

How much?

Got a really big raise this time.

Sorry to hear it. How's the job?

She's not feeling well. Flu, I think.

Same as ever. How's yours?

How's your wife?

They painted her purple. They should call her the Prune Fart now.

Good. Did you hear what John and Daisy did to the Sea Skipper?

Good, and you?

Bob! How the heck are you?

The previous example is funny, actually. Reading it from the top down and from the bottom up provides a completely intelligible message. But, consider, the conversation means something completely different when read one way versus the other. The farcical nature of reading it top down should, hopefully, make it clear that top posting is just not a reasonable alternative.

Top posting makes your message incomprehensible to many of your readers. In normal conversation, after all, you do not answer to something that has not yet been said. Replying at the top confuses your readers, making any point you are trying to get across very unclear without them scrolling up and down repeatedly, searching to integrate context correctly. That extra, wholly unnecessary work leads to reader irritation, or worse, to readers just not bothering with your words at all.

Since your object is to get your message across, help your readers follow by placing your words in context, not prior to the context. Doing otherwise, forcing your readers to go to extra work unnecessarily, is often irritating, sometimes interpreted as insulting, or in severe cases taken as an attempt by you to show your complete lack of respect for others. Any way you cut that, delivering your words in an hard to read manner does not help your case. Instead, interleave your replies to preserve context and show respect your readers; the result will be that your readers will respect you and your message much more.

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