10 February 2017

Quoting style in newsgroup postings

This article is based on material authored by members of the news.newusers.questions Moderation Board and nnq-workers mailing list.

Introduction

This document is a description of the traditionally accepted quoting style in Usenet newsgroup postings. Please do not consider this to be a regulatory document (‘You must do it this way because we say so’), but rather as an advocacy document (‘A lot of people think this is a good way to do it, and here’s why’). See Q11 below for more about this.

Index

Q1: What is ‘quoting’ in newsgroup postings?

When you respond to a posting by using your newsreading software’s ‘reply’ command (perhaps called ‘respond’ or ‘followup’), it’s usually helpful to include (‘quote’) some of the text from the posting that you’re responding to, to help set the context for your own comments. For that reason, most newsreading software automatically quotes the entire posting and prefixes each line with a > symbol, or it can be configured to do so.

Usually you should use this quoted material only as a starting point, and edit it as discussed below.

Q2: How should I use the quoted text and arrange it with my own text?

In a nutshell, you should quote clearly and selectively, attribute those quotes properly to the person who wrote them, and place your comments after the comments that you are responding to, like this:

    Newsgroups: alt.tv.gilligans-island
    From: Island Fan
    Subject: Re: Gilligan's Island Theme Song

    Trivia Wiz wrote:
    > Who is named in the original theme song of Gilligan's
    > Island?

    Gilligan, Skipper, the Howells, and Ginger.

Q3: Why shouldn’t I quote the entire posting that I’m responding to?

First, because it wastes people’s time by making them download and scroll through what amounts to two complete postings. Second, it wastes network resources and disk space on news servers, most of which already have a copy of the original posting. These problems are multiplied when you quote an entire posting that in turn quotes an entire posting.

Many people have to pay for their Internet access by the minute or by the amount of data transferred. It costs them money to download unnecessary material.

Q4: But isn’t it sometimes handy to be able to refer to the entire previous posting, for example when you see the response first?

Yes! That’s why most newsreading software gives you a way to call up the previous posting, by pressing a key or clicking a button.

Of course, this works only if your news server hasn’t yet expired (removed) the previous posting to make room for new ones. But most servers keep old postings in discussion groups for several days at least. If you respond reasonably quickly, most people will have a chance to read your response before the original posting expires from their servers.

Q5: But doesn’t ‘trimming’ quoted material expose me to charges of quoting out of context?

Possibly, if you trim with too heavy a hand. Effective trimming is a skill that improves with practice. Most people don’t mind reasonable trimming of their words. If someone complains, look closely at what you did and re-evaluate your quoting strategy. A few people object to any trimming of their words, and there’s not much that you can do about that except not to respond to them any further.

Q6: What’s this about attributing properly?

Most news-posting software automatically inserts an attribution line at the top of the quoted text from the previous posting. In the example shown in Q2, it’s the line that reads ‘Trivia Wiz wrote:’. The exact format varies somewhat, depending on what software you’re using. Don’t delete it. Keep it so as to show clearly who wrote what you’re responding to.

If you’re responding to a posting that in turn is a response to another posting, etc., you can end up with several levels of quoting from different people. Our Gilligan’s Island example might develop like this:

    Newsgroups: alt.tv.gilligans-island
    From: GQuest Fan
    Subject: Re: Gilligan's Island Theme Song

    Nit Picker wrote:
    >Trivia Wiz wrote
    >>Palm Guy wrote:
    >>>Island Fan wrote:
    >>>>Trivia Wiz wrote
    >>>>>Who is named in the original theme song of Gilligan's
    >>>>>Island?
    >>>>
    >>>>Gilligan, Skipper, the Howells, and Ginger.
    >>>
    >>>What about Mary Ann and the Professor?
    >>
    >>They weren't mentioned until the second season.
    >
    >And the Howells and Ginger were described, not named.

    Those *poor* people.

Different numbers of quote marks (>) at the beginning of each line indicate different quoting levels. Following one level of quote marks upwards leads you to the attribution line for that level.

Make sure you keep the attribution lines for all the quoting levels in your response. Most people don’t like having words incorrectly attributed to them. If an attribution line is missing from a posting that you’re responding to, it’s often a good idea to insert one carefully by hand, if you can figure out for sure who wrote the quoted text; or at least put in something like ‘Somebody wrote:’.

If your quotes all have proper attribution lines, it’s completely unnecessary to quote people’s signatures at the ends of their postings, so delete them. They just take up space. (Unless, of course, you’re commenting on the signature itself!)

Q7: Why shouldn’t I put my comments above the quoted material?

Keep in mind that you’re not writing just for the person whose posting you’re responding to. (If you are, you should be emailing your response instead of posting it.) Thousands of other people may read what you write. People who aren’t directly involved in a discussion themselves, and who are probably following several discussions at once, usually follow the logic more easily when they can read the material in more-or-less chronological order.

When you have just a single question and response, and they’re both short, and the discussion doesn’t develop any further, it really doesn’t make that much difference in practice. But it’s impossible to predict in advance whether a response will draw another response. So in general, it’s best to put your response below the text that you’re responding to.

For example, take our extended Gilligan’s Island discussion from Q6 above, and rearrange it so that everybody puts their comments before the material that they quote:

    Newsgroups: alt.tv.gilligans-island
    From: GQuest Fan
    Subject: Re: Gilligan's Island Theme Song

    Those *poor* people.

    Nit Picker wrote:
    >And the Howells and Ginger were described, not named.
    >
    >Trivia Wiz wrote:
    >>They weren’t mentioned until the second season.
    >>
    >>Palm Guy wrote:
    >>>What about Mary Ann and the Professor?
    >>>
    >>>Island Fan wrote:
    >>>>Gilligan, Skipper, the Howells, and Ginger.
    >>>>
    >>>>Trivia Wiz wrote
    >>>>>Who is named in the original theme song of Gilligan's
    >>>>>Island?

Now it’s time for a pop quiz:

  • Which version (the one in Q6 or the one above) reads more coherently?
  • Is GQuest Fan’s punch line funnier at the top or at the bottom? (If you’ve never watched Gilligan’s Island, you may skip this question.)
  • For extra credit: Who is ‘they’ – Mary Ann and the Professor or the Howells and Ginger?

In a more realistic example, the attributions would often be longer, the quotations longer, and there would be some mostly-blank lines separating paragraphs. The whole message body might be longer than would fit on one screen, making it harder to match quotes to attributions, and responses with questions or other antecedents.

Q8: When I start composing a response, my news-posting software always puts the insertion point above the quoted material. Doesn’t that mean that ‘top posting’ is the normal thing to do?

Not necessarily. Some people theorise that the designers of such software aren’t very familiar with newsgroups and the conventions that have developed in them. Another possible explanation is that many programs use the same modules for composing email and newsgroup messages, and sometimes when you’re responding to an email message, it may make sense to append the entire original message to the end. (The recipient may not have filed a copy of their original message, or it may not be as easy to get to as with a preceding newsgroup message.)

With such software, a good strategy is to scroll downward, deleting excess text as you go. When you reach something that you want to comment on, put the insertion point after it and put your response (to that point) there.

Q9: But if I put my comments after the quoted text, won’t people have to scroll all the way to the bottom to read them?

If you delete unnecessary quoted text, they shouldn’t have to go far, not even a screenful. If you’re responding to more than one point, you should intersperse your comments among sections of quoted text, in point-counterpoint style. Put a blank line between each section, to help the reader distinguish them.

Besides, if you put your comments at the top, many people are going to scroll all the way to the bottom anyway, wondering whether you have anything more to say!

Q10: Shouldn’t we be paying attention to what a person says, rather than the cosmetic details of how it’s said?

In newsgroups, as well as in real life, people form judgments about others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their appearance. In newsgroups, your words are the only visible evidence that people can judge you by. Spelling, grammar and formatting all contribute to people’s impressions of you, and have at least some influence on how seriously other people will take you.

Also, these considerations don’t affect just the cosmetic appearance of what you write. They also affect how easy it is for people to read it, and understand the points that you’re trying to make. In general, people don’t like to be slowed down by scrolling through unnecessary material, or by having to stop and re-construct the logical sequence. It’s good to organize and edit quoted words logically, for the same reason that it’s good to organize and edit your own words logically.

It basically comes down to a question of etiquette, if you view the fundamental principle of etiquette as ‘Don’t make life unnecessarily difficult for other people’ and factor in the number of people who may read your postings.

Q11: Who made these rules, anyway? Who enforces them?

Nobody in particular made these ‘rules’. They developed over the years, based on the experience of people who use newsgroups a lot, and who like to be able to read and participate in many discussions efficiently. Nobody really enforces them, in the sense that nobody can deny your posting privileges for violating them. (An exception might be if a newsgroup is moderated, and the group requires a particular quoting style.) The only sense in which they can be enforced is by peer pressure: that is, your readers may complain to you about your quoting style.

In some newsgroups, if you quote the entire previous posting and put your comments above it, people are likely to ‘flame’ you for ‘top posting’ or posting ‘Jeopardy style’ (after the U.S. TV game show in which contestants first see an answer and then have to come up with the corresponding question). This is more likely in groups that have a high concentration of long-time newsgroup users. They’re not really doing this as a power trip (at least not usually); they’re genuinely irritated at what they see as the waste of network and human resources that such postings entail.

In other newsgroups, you don’t see much visible acrimony about top-posting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t matter. People may simply be more polite in those groups. After all, most people agree that it’s a Good Thing to use correct spelling and grammar, but they also agree that it’s usually in bad taste to correct mistakes publicly. Therefore, we recommend that you use the standard quoting style described here, unless you have clear evidence that people in a particular newsgroup actively prefer another style; for example if an FAQ mentions it, or if more people actually complain about ‘bottom-posting’ than about top-posting.