The Endless Debates: E-mail Signature

The Endless Debate covers topics that seems to come up again and again, which seems to have no winner in the end. The classic example of it is the number of spaces after the period. (This particular topic is not covered by me yet, but I will certainly get to it at some point, stay tuned!) The purpose of this series is to not attach people with the opposite view, rather, it’s an exploration of ideas, with the main focus on history, technology, and practicality.

In this article, I will be covering E-mail signature placement, which also covers reply styles.

What’s an E-mail Signature?

If you are sending E-mail daily basis, you know what is it. As many articles1 claims E-mail usages among young people are feeling, let me explain what it is.

Hi,
My E-mail is my password.
Verify me.

-- 
Werner Brandes
Playtronics Corporation

Bottom of E-mail, with the name and the company name is an E-mail signature block.

A Typical E-mail Structure
A Typical E-mail Structure

What’s the argument?

With a single message (or the first message in the thread), there’s not much room for arguments; you begin by starting your message, and then you sign the message at the bottom. This starts to get a bit complicated when someone replies. I will illustrate two cases:

The first one:

Werner Brandes writes:
> Hi,
> My E-mail is my password.
> Verify me.
> 
> -- 
> Werner Brandes
> Playtronics Corporation

Who are you?

-- 
Cosmo
Playtronics Corporation

and the second one…

Who are you?

-- 
Cosmo
Playtronics Corporation

Werner Brandes writes:
> Hi,
> My E-mail is my password.
> Verify me.
> 
> -- 
> Werner Brandes
> Playtronics Corporation

You see two different approaches? The first example is called interleaved-posting and the second one is called top-posting.

What’s the specification say?

Currently, there aren’t any specification stipulate the way E-mail signature need to be placed. It is, however, the convention is to use “-- ” (two dashes, plus space) followed by a new line to separate E-mail signature from the body.

Many E-mail systems assume that this convention is used, for example Mozilla Thunderbird would dim the portion after the separator, visually separating the section of a message from the body. Gmail also treats it differently, too.

Implementations

Gmail

Gmail has a checkbox that says “Insert this signature before quoted text in replies and remove the “-- ” line that precedes it.” Apparently, it removes “-- ” so to prevent many E-mail software to mistreat quoted text as signature blocks.

Mozilla Thunderbird

Mozilla Thunderbird defaults to interleaved-posting style. Can be configured to top post. Like Gmail, I believe it also removes “-- ” when it is set to do top posting.

Microsoft Outlook

I do not actually know how this works with Microsoft Outlook. Mainly because I don’t even have a license for it. I’m assuming it’s using top posting.

Semantic differences

If the purpose of the signature is denote your ownership of the message, there are several ways you can view it. Perhaps, mainly this comes from the way one perceives quoted text.

Quoted text as transcript

This approach takes quoted text as a transcript of the message – therefore the message is signed at the end of the reply. Quoted text is thought to be a transcript, so the sender is not signing it, because it’s not his/her text.

Quoted text as treated text

This is the consideration that quoted text no longer holds parity to the originally replied message, even when they are identical. This is fair view that once it is quoted by someone else, the message was physically outside of original sender’s control.

Rational is that quoted text may or may not be modified, thus signature is very bottom of the message.

Conclusion

It’s actually really pointless arguments, for sure. Consider this, with E-mail system, we already face enough of a difference.

Many E-mail software (Mozilla Thunderbird, Gmail, and countless others) uses Usenet quoting for replying. Which basically means, something like this:

Werner Brandes writes:
> Hi,
> My E-mail is my password.
> Verify me.
> 
> -- 
> Werner Brandes
> Playtronics Corporation

While some use forward quoting (Microsoft Outlook and some others):

----Original Message-----
From: Werner Brendas
Sent: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 8:20 AM
To: Cosmo
Subject: My password

Hi,
My E-mail is my password.
Verify me.
 
-- 
Werner Brandes
Playtronics Corporation

And mixing those two:

-----Original Message-----
From: C
Sent: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 1:32 AM
To: A
Subject: Foobar

Foo bar bar bar
A writes:
> Foo bar
> 
> B writes:
>> Foo bar bar
>>
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: C
>> Sent: Wednesday, November 25, 2014, 9:00PM
>> To: B
>>
>> Foo bar
>>
>> A writes:
>>>
>>> Foo bar

You see? We are already forced to live much greater difference when it comes to E-mail. Placement of signature, or even reply style is least of our worries.