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Tricks of the trade: email etiquette

Tech Columnist

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 12:10

email ettiquite

Illustration by Burke Stanion/Prospectus News

Email is now becoming one of the most common means of communication. In the age of instant messaging, blogs, and texting, less emphasis is being placed on formality in our methods of communicating. It can seem so much faster and easier to abbreviate, use acronyms and otherwise let slide the conventions of formal correspondence. When it comes to the workplace or student/teacher relations, however, many view this laxness as inappropriate. It may seem obvious to some that it's not a good idea to send an email to an English professor full of misspelled words and bad grammar, but it may seem less obvious when just firing off a quick question about problem 16 to your Math professor.

To get to the bottom of this, Buster Bytes asked Rebecca Busker, Professor of English at Parkland College, for her opinion about proper email etiquette.

BB: Is it okay for students to address their emails to you using your first name?

RB: Students should either check the course materials or listen on the first day to how the instructor introduces her or himself. I, for example, have no problem with students using my first name. I do, however, ask them not to call me "Mrs. Busker" (who is my mother), and I get a little annoyed when they still do it even after I've reminded them three or four times. If you don't know an instructor, Ms. or Mr. or Prof. is probably okay.

BB: How long should students wait for a response before sending you another email?

RB: I specifically say in my syllabus that I try to answer email within 24 hours during the week, and weekends vary. After that, I'm okay with a nudge. I get a lot of email, and things fall through the cracks. If your professor doesn't say anything, I'd say 48 hours.

BB:Does it matter if students use proper grammar, spelling, and letter format?

RB: Yes, yes, and did I mention, YES? I actually have a policy that says I don't answer email that doesn't at least attempt standard spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. I don't mind informality (I'm not very formal myself), but correspondence in a college course should at least spell out the word "you" (it's only three letters!) and contain apostrophes.

BB: Does it matter at what time of the day students send email? (Is it okay to email your professor at 2 AM?)

RB:Email is asynchronous, so when a student sends an email is not an issue. Now, if they actually expect me to answer at 2 a.m., that's another matter.

BB: Do you have any "horror stories" you'd like to share? Pet peeves?

RB:The lack of capitalization/punctuation and calling me "Mrs. Busker" when I've specifically asked them not to kind of are my pet peeves. The horror stories are confidential ;).

BB: Is there anything else you'd like the Parkland student body to know about email etiquette?

RB:Don't start emails to your instructors with "Hey." Some of them really don't like it. If you email me on my Parkland email instead of Angel to ask me when a paper is due, please tell me what class you are in. Mind you, I'll probably just direct you to the schedule anyway, but the point still stands.

Lauren O'Connor, professor of English, includes the following pointers in a handout for her English 102 class:

Have a clear subject line. Don't abbreviate or use general terms. A good topic is something like "Question about Lab #3." Don't leave the field blank, abbreviate, or create a vague subject. "Question" is not a good subject, neither is L3? A clear subject will tell your teacher what your email is about and how important it is.

Keep it short. A clearly written email that gets to the point quickly is not only easier for your teacher to read, but also more likely to get a swift response.

Use the appropriate tone. Did your professor introduced herself as Jenny during class orientation, or Dr. Jones? This is the form of address you should use when writing an email. Just as a professor has the right to be addressed by the title he or she has earned, he or she also has the right to be addressed by first name if they don't like being called Mr. Rogers. If you can't remember, address the first email formally and see how they sign their response.

Professor of Mathematics, Omar Adawi adds that students at Parkland should use their student email or ANGEL accounts to contact their teachers to prevent having their messages marked as spam by the system.

In addition to these tips, a great many more general guidelines can be found on the Web. A few good ones can be found on Griffith University's site located at They suggest much of the above, but also point out that it's a good idea to include background and clarification in the email. Don't assume that your teacher or professor knows what you're talking about. Remember that while you may have only three or four professors, they may have a hundred students in a number of different courses which cover different material. Another good tip is to remember to include attachments. If the intent of the email is to send in your paper, don't forget to include it. Something else to keep in mind is that not every email is urgent or high priority. One should only mark emails as such that really are of a very important nature. And one more thing: Don't send anyone chain mail letters. Ever.

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