Just this morning, I got a great question from one of my students. She was using Yahoo Mail, and was missing the “formatting” toolbar (i.e. the one that has the Bold, Underline, Italic, etc. buttons on it). This question led me to start thinking about email formatting in general, and about all the questions and problems formatting generates.

To begin, let me relate a bit of email history.

When email was first invented in 1971 as part of the early Internet (ARAPANet), it was intended to be “text-only“, which meant just that… it was plain text with no pretty formatting. For the early days of the Internet, plain text email was just fine. But then in the early 1990’s, at the onset of the World Wide Web, things began to change. The Internet suddenly changed from a text-based world to a graphical based world, where uses began expecting their Internet screens to look prettier.

This carried over to email, and during the 1990’s, the programs we used for email (called email clients) began including features that would allow you to format the plain text, as if you were using a word processor. Behind the scenes, in order to accomplish this, what the email programs were REALLY doing was turning your plain text email message into a “pretty web page“, using the language behind web pages, HTML (HperText Markup Language).

But there was a problem.  Not all email programs supported HTML formatting, and so if you sent a pretty email to someone, there was no guarantee that they could see that prettiness.  And there was another problem. About the same time, different browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape, and later Firefox) decided to go their own direction with HTML and display web pages in different ways. This difference carried over to email, and if you did fancy formatting with one email program, it was often the case that the recipients email program would display the fanciness differently. What a bummer!

Ok but where does all that leave us today?

Well, things HAVE gotten a lot better. Today, most email programs (Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, etc.) as well as web-based email programs (Gmail and Yahoo Mail) do support “basic” email formatting. What I mean by basic is that they let you do such things as change the font (Ariel, Times New Roman, etc.), change the style (bold, italic, underline), add a bullet list, and perhaps even add a line. These same formatting features are also considered “basic” when it comes to web pages, and all browsers treat these features the same.

For example, here are the formatting toolbars found in Gmail (top) and Yahoo mail (bottom). Notice that they are farily simple, and not as extensive as your word processor formatting bar.

So by staying “basic”, the email programs are essentially staying compatible with each other, and if you format an email in one program, your friend will see it the same way in THEIR program.

But there are still some issues, evidenced by the email questions I get asked.

First, most email programs let you switch between composing a “plain” email and a “rich text” (formatted) email, by clicking an option on the screen. This can be a problem if you are use to seeing your formatting toolbar, and then one day go to compose a message and it’s gone (because you accidentally clicked the option to switch to plain text).

For example, when you compose a new message in Gmail, notice there is a PLAIN TEXT option up on the toolbar (here it’s circled in red):



In Yahoo Mail, they also have a PLAIN TEXT option (again, circled in red):


Another issue, and probably one of the biggest, is with pictures. Notice that the toolbars in the above screenshots do NOT have a button for “inserting a picture or graphic” like a word processor would have. Yes, pretty emails CAN include pictures, but for most people, this means you’ll have to add them as an attachment that will automatically appear at the bottom of your email message. You can’t insert and then position them WHERE you want them in your message.

The important thing to remember, then, is that you CAN make your email look pretty using the basic formatting toolbars, but don’t be totally surprised if your recipient (who might be using just plain text) can’t see that pretty formatting. Which is why you might just consider keeping it REALLY simple, and just use plain text.

Got a comment about this? We’d love you to leave it below in the comment box.


[UPDATE– In the comments below, a reader mentioned they are using Windows Live Mail, so I’m adding a screen shot of what Live Mail looks like… at least on my computer. Since I don’t use it on a regular basis, I’m not as versed with the program. However, if you look at the screenshot, you can see that it uses the newer Microsoft “ribbon” instead of an old-fashion toolbar, but that the ribbon is fixed at the top of the screen and has all of the basic formatting buttons.]

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