RFC - e-mail in tough environments

Andreas Tolf Tolfsen ato at fsfe.org
Thu Dec 10 13:49:43 UTC 2009

* Also sprach Peter Lewis <prlewis at fsfe.org>:
> On Wednesday 09 Dec 2009 19:05:02 Matthias Kirschner wrote:
> >     - *Line break of e-mails* Should be around 72 characters. Nobody
> >     will kill you if it is 70 or 74 or even 76. But a lot of people
> >     will get angry if you do not have a line break at all.
> I really don't like static word wrapping, as much as I don't like
> static width web pages. I read emails on a variety of devices and
> window sizes, and the presumption that ~72 characters is appropriate
> for wherever I'm reading it seems rather arbitrary.

Static width in web sites and e-mail is not comparable.  They have very
little in common, and indeed ”static width” is a very confusing term to
use.  Web sites do not concern themselves with new lines; e-mail does.
This is the basic reason why these two should be treated separately.

As e-mails ought to be sent in plain text format only, you should also
wrap your lines at between 70 and 80 characters.  In the RFC 2822, 78
characters per line is specified as the standard.

Initially, breaking the lines was necessary for displaying e-mails
correctly on text-only terminals.  This has since become the norm for
mail authoring, however.  Web technologies, such as HTML, behaves
differently as they are built to resemble typesetting qualities.  In
HTML, line breaks (carriage return and new line) does not affect the
output, as new lines must be specified through a tag (<br />).

As these two technologies serves different purposes, they also behave
differently.  Around 70 to 80 characters per line is also a comfortable
length of a line to read, with a free-flowing e-mail content this is not
easy to accomodate without altering the content of the author, which
would likely lead to much confusion.

If you're using a sensible editor, it will already be programmed to
conventiently perform this task for you.  In GNU Emacs, you can use the
”M-q” shortcut to wrap and indent the line correctly. There is an
equvialent in vim by pressing ”gqap”, although this is not as
sophisticated as Emacs', it will do the trick. [1]

Some other mail user agents also have settings for automatically
wrapping mails upon sending them, such as Opera's M2 and Gmail, I

> A good client should have dynamic word wrapping IMO.

It is considered bad e-mail etiquette to send e-mails without wrapping
them.  But of course, there is nothing preventing you from removing \r\n
(carriage return, new line) on all your incoming e-mail to better
facilitate reading e-mail on various devices.


  1. I have assigned various combinations of ”gqap” in my .vimrc like

       " Have Q reformat the current paragraph (or selected text if there
       " is any):
       nnoremap Q gqap
       vnoremap Q gq

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