Quoting Style

Richard Kettlewell

What's this about, then?

This document is about quoting style on USENET. It suggests a number of things that writers can choose to do in order to improve the readability of articles, and a number of things that they should avoid.

Although the primary focus regards news postings, the advice is good for email too: readability is just as important in email as in news.

Summary

When following up an article on USENET, following the guidelines below should lead to more readable articles than otherwise:

Introduction

Many postings to USENET are "followups" of some existing article. People often include some or all of the text from the article they are replying to in order to provide context to the reader. There are a variety of styles in which one can do this - for example one could put new text before or after quoted text, or interleaved with it.

Some of those styles are better than others. This document aims to describe what the best styles are, and to explain why they are felt to be best. Posters should use these best styles and avoid inferior ones.

It's a fundamental assumption of this document that the reader's time is very much more important than the writer's: in other words, if the writer can spend a few extra seconds to save a small amount of effort on the part of the reader, then that is time well spent. The justification for this assumption is that there are many readers but (for each post) only one writer, so any saving on the part of the reader is multiplied up.

Interleave New Text with Quoted Text

When posting a followup, there are (at least) three ways to manage the mix of new and quoted text:

No quoted text

The first way is simply to omit the article being replied to entirely and just post new text; the primary problem with this is that the reader may have no idea what is actually being replied to and has to either guess from the reply, or go back and look. Either are more time consuming than having the relevant text immediately available on screen.

Example:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

I agree.
-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/

Can you tell what Igor agrees with from this? The reader must manually check the previous article to see what on earth Igor is talking about. This may not take long, but the reader shouldn't have to do it, it may not actually be possible for some readers; sometimes articles arrive out of order or even not at all.

It's true that there is typically a "Subject:" field purporting to provide some information about the thread in which the article appears, but this is insufficient for two reasons. Firstly threads drift across many topics sometimes without any change to the "Subject:" field, and secondly it is generally only a line or so and generally contains relatively little useful information about what is being discussed even when it is accurate.

Summary: all articles should include at least some of the text from the article they are responding to, so that the reader can more rapidly understand what the new article means.

This raises the question, of course, of how to arrange the quoted text and the new text.

Top posting

"Top posting" refers to the practice of putting new text right at the top of the article, followed by some or all of the original article. Often a signature is placed between the new and quoted text. The result might look like this:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

I agree.
-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/
Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:
> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.

Firstly, using this method with a signature between new and quoted text is a dead loss; some newsreaders snip off signatures in displayed articles, resulting in the reader seeing only the new text - so this style of top posting will (for some readers) decay to the no quoted text case.

Ignoring that case, this approach is still suboptimal. The reader presumably reads from top to bottom; so they will see the response first, and then see what it is a response to. This is the reverse order to normal conversation and writing - you don't answer someone's question before they ask it!

It's even worse if there are several things to respond to:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

I agree.

I disagree.

-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/
Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:
> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.
> 
> Domestic servants get too much holiday.
> 

You have to read the whole article before you can figure out what Igor is agreeing or disagreeing with. It'd be even worse if he was writing multi-line responses to multi-line assertions from Dracula - there'd be more information to keep in your head as you match up each response with the text it is a response to. And just try doing it if there are a dozen or so different points to keep track of...

Of course an alternative would be to make each bit of the response refer to appropriate original text, for example:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

I agree about the sheep, but I disagree about the domestic servants.

-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/
Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:
> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.
> 
> Domestic servants get too much holiday.
> 

This is better, but for an even slightly more complex conversation the reader would still have to look back and forth in the article to see exactly what the poster was responding to.

Summary: top posting violates the natural way in which people read postings, and makes it unclear what the posting actually means.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

Interleaved text

By interleaved text, I mean the practice of inserting the response to each part of the original article just after the quoted text appropriate to that response. For example:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:

> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.

I agree.

> Domestic servants get too much holiday.

I disagree.

-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/

The interleaving of the text makes it immediately clear what Igor is agreeing with or disagreeing with; and you can understand the first half of the article just by reading the first half, rather than having to read the whole thing before it can make sense.

This approach may be a bit more work for the writer (though personally I always felt it came pretty naturally); they have to insert blank space in the appropriate places as well as writing new text. But as argued above, this is worthwhile if it saves even a little effort for the reader; and in fact this approach also makes it easier for the writer to be sure that they have responded to everything they meant to - anything they forgot to respond to will stand out as a chunk of quoted text with no response after it.

Summary: the best way to arrange the quoted and new text is to insert the new text on new lines within the quoted text, so that it always immediately follows the relevant portion of the quoted text.

It's worth mentioning one other point here. Sometimes interleaving replies with existing text too enthusiastically can result in a failure to see the wood for the trees: in some cases rather than (for example) dividing a paragraph up into three bits and replying to each separately, it is more sensible to reply to the paragraph as an integrated whole. Which style is more appropriate is a matter that can only be judged on case-by-case basis.

Delete Irrelevant Quoted Text

Whichever way you quote, it's worth putting in a little effort to delete any quoted text that you're not going to respond to. If the writer does this then the reader doesn't have to guess which bit of text they are responding to and which bits are irrelevant, but can see it immediately.

There is another advantage in that it makes posts shorter, and thus quicker to read. Arguments about network bandwidth are somewhat relevant, since some readers still pay by the byte; but I consider human time - "eyeball bandwidth" - much more important. It's annoying paging through hundreds of lines of quoted text to discover that the poster has written a single line of agreement, disagreement, abuse or whatever at the end.

Quoting signatures (the fixed text at the end of the article) is worth mentioning as a specific example of needless quoting. The previous poster's signature is almost never relevant to what the followup says, so it's wasteful (for the above reasons) to quote it.

Summary: preserve only the quoted text that is relevant to the reply, and delete the rest. Only quote signatures if you're commenting on them.

Preserve Attributions Appropriately

An attribution is a piece of text, usually added by the newsreader, indicating who wrote a piece of text quoted in a followup; in the example below it is the line reading "Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:".

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:

> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.

I agree.

> Domestic servants get too much holiday.

I disagree.

-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/

Depending on the writer's newsreader, the attribution usually contains some of the following:

Some identifying information about the original poster (their name and/or email address) is the most important part; it associates text with author. Most of the rest can be left out without doing any harm - the message ID is available in the header of the new article, the date of the quoted message is largely irrelevant (and given the message ID, the message can be found and the date extracted from it anyway, if it really matters).

There are two things that can go wrong. One is failing to attribute the quoted text, or failing to attribute all of it; quite often you see several levels of quoted text with only the first level attributed. Often in this case the unattributed text could actually be deleted entirely without losing the sense of the article - it often makes perfect sense to only quote text from the immediate predecessor article, rather than from three or four earlier articles as well. But sometimes it is necessary to quote several levels deep, and in that case there should be proper attributions so that the reader can tell who wrote what without having to trace back through the thread.

Another failing is leaving in too many attributions - i.e. leaving in the attribution for an article from which no text remains at all. This is plain laziness, and in an article containing many levels of quoting can be confusing to the reader.

Summary: include attributions for the quoted text, and no more.

Other Mistakes

There are other, less disastrous, mistakes that can make it harder to read postings.

Missing Whitespace

There are two key places where blank lines should be used in postings. The first is between paragraphs. The plain text format used in USENET doesn't have any special way of marking paragraph breaks; a very commonly adopted convention is to use a blank line to separate paragraphs, and this has the advantage of marking out paragraph breaks very clearly across the whole of the line.

A less common, but still perfectly adequate, approach is to use special indentation on the first line of each paragraph (as is common in printed books).

Simply starting a new paragraph on the next line from the previous, without an intervening blank line, indentation or any other kind of visual hint, makes it much harder to follow the structure of a posting.

The second follows from the first, in a sense, but is actually more important: leave blank lines between new and quoted text. This is important because when scanning quickly through an article it's useful to have an easy way to spot where the quoted text ends and the new text begins, particularly when the quoted and new text are interleaved many times.

The example above, repeated but without the blank lines between the quoted and new text, looks like this:

Subject: Re: vampire bats
From: igor@example.com

Dracula <vlad@example.com> wrote:
> All vampire bats should be given free sheep to feed on.
I agree.
> Domestic servants get too much holiday.
I disagree.

-- 
igor@example.com      http://www.example.com/%7Eigor/

With this style it takes much longer to spot where the new text is.

Summary: take care to distinguish paragraphs, preferably with blank lines; distinguish quoted text from new text with blank lines.

Don't Miswrap Quoted Text

Broadly speaking, USENET articles should fit into 80 columns. A common recommendation is to keep new text wrapped at 72 columns, so that there is space for it to be quoted several times without exceeding the 80 column limit.

However, sometimes you see articles where a newsreader - or maybe the poster themselves - has attempted to word-wrap the quoted text without taking the quoting characters into account. The result can look like this:

> However, sometimes you see articles where a newsreader
- or
> maybe the poster themselves - has attempted to word-wrap
the
> quoted text without taking the quoting characters into
account.
> The result can look like this:

...or like this:

> However, sometimes you see articles where a newsreader
- or > maybe the poster themselves - has attempted to word-wrap
the > quoted text without taking the quoting characters into
account. > The result can look like this:

Well, that's a mess. But it also loses the > characters from the left side of the quoted text, making it harder to recognise for what it is.

Summary: if you must re-wrap quoted text, take the quote character(s) into account.

Referring to This Document

If you refer to this document, for example in a USENET posting in which you hope to encourage someone to change their quoting style, there are a few guidelines I would like you to follow if possible:

  1. Quote the correct URL. The correct URL to quote is: http://www.greenend.org.uk/rjk/2000/06/14/quoting.html

    Other URLs may work for now but this is not guaranteed.

  2. Be polite. Calling someone an idiot for top-posting may help let off steam, but it's unlikely to help fix the problem - indeed the opposite might be more likely.

  3. Don't be obscure. If you simply post the URL then it may not be immediately obvious what you mean, depending on context; instead saying something like "Your quoting style makes your article difficult to follow, this URL describes some ways to make it better" may be more sensible.

If you see someone citing this document without following these guidelines, it might be appropriate to point them out. But note that this section was not always here.

Related Documents

http://www.usenet.org.uk/usenet-information.html - Useful information about USENET; a collection notes and links about USENET in general, with a uk.* bias.

http://www.usenet.org.uk/ukpost.html - Configuring your news reader to post to uk.*; section 3 discusses quoting issues.

news.announce.newusers - various USENET FAQ documents are regularly posted here.

http://homepage.ntlworld.com/g.mccaughan/g/remarks/uquote.html has some remarks about quoting conventions.

Credits

This document was written by Richard Kettlewell, and is copyright (C) 2000, 2002.

Martin Hardcastle, David Richerby, Eleanor Blair, Matthew Byng-Maddick and Lucian Wischik all provided useful feedback on earlier versions of this document.

RJK | Contents