Email tip: Pronouns in the subject line are in the eye of the beholder


This applies to email, but it applies even more to meetings and appointments, which are typically arranged via email or similar workflow.

It may seem obvious at the time, but messages with pronouns like me or you in the subject line tend to be harder to understand when you come back to the message a little while later.

I was reminded of this by a colleague who received a meeting reminder alert that simply read:

Title: One-on-one chat
Start time: May 9, 2007 4:00 PM
Location: my office

Whose office is my office?

This is a generalization of choosing a subject line that is meaningful to the recipient. You want a subject line that is meaningful to everybody involved.

And here's the round-up of some unhelpful or rude subject lines I've seen in the past five months:

  • Question
  • A question
  • Two questions
  • Can someone help me !!!!
  • Need help regarding SRQ141421
  • Need assistance//SRQ0314159
  • SRX602214179-23
  • Need some help guys
  • Need assistance with the following issue
  • Need help on a few things.
  • newbie question
  • Guidance/Help
  • A C# question (sent to a C# discussion list)
  • C++ Error (bonus points: This was also sent to a C# discussion list)
  • Strange Error
  • Erratic behavior
  • Sorry about wide distribution
Comments (32)
  1. Tom says:

    Subject lines like those bring back many an unpleasant USENET memory.

    Also, it’s nice to see the issue numbers are mathematical constants such as PI and Avogadro’s number.  My public education has failed me, however, as I don’t recognize 141421.  

  2. Dan says:

    1.41421 is the square root of 2, or the first few digits anyhow

  3. nathan_works says:

    (I like the sneaker inserting of a mole in the numbers too.. e, sqrt(2), pi, all mathy.. Chemistry is more my style..)

  4. Me says:

    How is this idiot’s alert reminder the same as an email with pronoun subject line?  If it was actually an email there would be context (the sender).

    [And the context is wrong once somebody replies to or forwards the message. -Raymond]
  5. Ben says:

    @Me:

    The meeting was probably scheduled via Exchange calendars, so it’s exactly the same as an email.

    Putting "My office" is probably because the sender thought "<insert managers name here>’s office" was too formal. (And you’re hardly likely to forget who your manager is, or forward the invite on)

    A nice solution would be to put "My office(7/1234)"

  6. Michael G says:

    Smartass comment of the day:

    "My office" is where I keep "My Computer".

    On a less-smartassy note: It does seem like for a "one-on-one chat", it’s unlikely that either participant would be all that confused, assuming they both knew who the other one was.

  7. greenlight says:

    Oh god yes, subject lines are a pet peeve of mine. I know one guy who’s every email to me has a subject of "hey", "yo", "ok so", "urgent" or something like that. Sometimes I’ll come back to 3 of these waiting in my inbox. Completely useless.

  8. ::Wendy:: says:

    that happened to me

    I sat in my office and they sat in theirs for 15 minutes before either of us checked who sent the email!  It was my manager.  Since then I try to use specific names like ‘Wendy’s office’,  or ‘the comfy chairs on the balcony over the coffeee machine (we can glare at anyone already sitting there until they move)’

  9. JamesNT says:

    I often crack on people for over-use of pronouns or pronouns without an antecedant.  What’s really strange is how angry they get it me for not knowing what they are talking about after they have used 22 pronouns and not one noun to back any of them up.

    JamesNT

  10. Alec Soroudi says:

    I can commiserate with subject-aggravation. I really despise teaser-subjects like “Looks Like…”, “If only they would…”, etc. They are supposed to entice you to view the whole message (and unfortunately they do for far too many people), but only serve to further irritate those of us with brains.

    I always make a special effort to craft a descriptive, yet brief subject line whether in email, forums, or otherwise. :)

    Of course, when people view messages with useless or “clever” subject lines, it makes me wonder why I bother to go to the effort of making good ones.

  11. Kyle Marsh says:

    Luckily, the next version of Outlook (and Outlook Express) will removes the ability to add subjects for emails. This will solve the above confusion.

  12. Outlook could restore the context by including the name of the meeting organizer on the meeting prompt.

  13. bill says:

    I say 9/10 meetings like this should be phone calls

  14. Jonathan says:

    Another thing that happens in my work site:

    1. X is keaving the site.
    2. X sends an emotional mail saying how good his tenure here was, etc. Title: Farewell / Goodbye / Leaving /etc.

    3. Y (X’s manager) replies-all with some kind words of his own. Title: re: Farewell / re: Goodbye / etc.

    4. Z (Y’s manager) does the same, as do several other bigwigs.

    5. I read a mail from Z: titled "Re: Fairwell". As my eyes are well-trained to skip "Re:", I read it as "Z is leaving".

    In 7 years, I only remember one instance where a leaving person mentioned his name in the subject, thus avoiding this course of events.

  15. chrismcb says:

    My only pet peeve about subjects is when the subject contains useful information that is NOT included in the body.

  16. Or (I work in IT), we’ll get emails with subjects like "what did you guys do?" or "you broke it!" or "computer acting funny" or (subject)"one of you guys came over to fix my computer and" followed by  (message) "broke it."

  17. steveg says:

    Blank subject lines, there’s nothing worse.

  18. Dale says:

    When I’m working as a team lead, I normally tell the troops:

    http://blog.wisefaq.com/category/etiquette/

    as I hate generalised meeting invites and emails.

  19. Barry Leiba says:

    Related to the use of pronouns is the use of names that don’t include everyone.  It’s common, when I get an invitation to meet with, say, a VP, sent by her secretary, for the subject to be "Talk with Barry".  This, of course, isn’t of much use when I accept it to *my* calendar.

    The sharper assistants will make it clear: "Talk, Sally & Barry".  Now it’s good on both of our calendars.

  20. Worf says:

    Personally, I’ve raised the ire of everyone who schedules a meeting request with me, because I never respond to them (by clicking the "Accept", "Decline", "Suggest new time" buttons).

    The reason for this is that if I click those buttons, the email with the meeting request disappears, and I have to search my calendar to find it. Since I tend to refer and index my email by approximate date, it’s annoying since I never notice the date/time of the meeting, and they crop up on me suddenly.

    If I don’t respond, though, the request stays in my inbox where I can see it, and it gets added to my calendar anyways, so I don’t lose out. And if I couldn’t make the meeting, I send a reply anyhow.

    Ironically, this helps preserve the context of "my office" a bit, since you can assume it’s the sender’s office.

    Yeah, yeah,, yeah, my inbox is unsorted and a mess, but it fits my workflow and keeps stuff temporally associated, which to me works fine. Sorting is useful, but if one message can be sorted multiple ways, gets annoying (tagging is better).

  21. Phylyp says:

    And the context is wrong once somebody replies to or forwards the message

    I experienced this once, when my supervisor quit with an email titled "my resignation", which his supervisor subsequently forwarded to me.

    When it hit my inbox, I thought "$hit, are both of them quitting?"

  22. Weeble says:

    I find that it’s very easy to use Outlook incorrectly. People keep sending me meeting invitations with the room invited as a "required attendee" instead of "resource", and a blank location, so when the reminder comes up it doesn’t tell me where I’m going and I need to open it up and look at the list of attendees. I don’t even know why it’s possible to invite a room as a person or a person as a resource!

    Separately, I think it’s nice if somebody considers how their subject line will make sense if I forward their message, but I’d say the onus still falls on me to make sure that if I forward an email that it still makes sense.

  23. SMW says:

    @Worf: Most email programs with integrated calendars (Outlook, Notes) allow you to keep the meeting request in your Inbox even after you have accepted the meeting.

    @Weeble: One purpose for allowing a person to be invited as a resource is for the case where an outsider (consultant, etc.) will be at the company for an extended period of time.  They have their own email that may not be calendar-compatible, but adding them as a resource means they show up on the list of people invited to the meeting.

  24. Me says:

    [And the context is wrong once somebody replies to or forwards the message. -Raymond]

    I’m not too bright but I can usually figure out the context by reading the forwarded message’s content.

  25. Mike says:

    @Weeble: Some companies will have the room listed as a person so they can use that to see if the room is "busy."

    That way you know when you schedule a meeting that the room is available or not.

  26. David Walker says:

    I hate subject lines like "Can someone help me !!!!" since it is a question that doesn’t end with a question mark.  

    Yes, I can help you, by sending you to a class on the difference between a question and a statement.

    Gene:  WHAT?  Do you expect people to completely memorize the content of every e-mail message they have ever read?  Some of us can’t retain that much in our brains.  

    When I go back through my in-box looking for an e-mail that I know is there, on a particular topic, in order to review some of the little details that are in the message, I expect the subject line to give me a clue as to which message it is.

    I’m glad that YOU have an eidetic memory, but some of us don’t.

  27. Brandon says:

    >But I see no problem with naming a thread "Question" and asking a question in it.

    My problem with threads in message boards that have that kind of name is that I don’t want to waste my time opening the thread to find out it’s a question that I can’t answer. Or if I’m searching for a solution to a problem, I don’t want to have to open every thread named "Question!" to see if it can help me. If the question is right there in the name, it can save all kinds of time.

  28. davel says:

    I don’t often have a problem with pronouns in email.  I will, however, when speaking with certain people who separate the antecedent from the pronoun by, say, 20 minutes. (*cough*wife*cough*)

    @worf: Depending on what version of Outlook you’re using, there’s a setting for that, "Delete meeting request from Inbox when responding" buried in the Advanced E-mail Options (at least in 2003).  I turned it off, for exactly the reasons you give.

    @Weeble:  I fall back on the older form "New relevent subject (was: no longer relevent subject)".  This seems to help people who weren’t part of the discussion before see what it means to them.

  29. Gene says:

    Generally I find subject lines quite useless.  I agree that ‘My Office’ was a silly choice for the meeting location, but I don’t care for all your *other* gripes about thread subjects and e-mail subjects.

    Hell, often times I’ll just leave the subject blank.  I expect someone to look at it once, and then not have to look at it again because they already read it.  It should be enough seeing who it is from.  When speaking I don’t feel the need to preface myself with “Before I talk, here’s the subject of my discussion…” either.

    When something is important or will get forwarded often then sure, give it a good subject.  But I see no problem with naming a thread “Question” and asking a question in it.

    [You must not subscribe to a lot of mailing lists. Imagine if every message sent to the list had “Question” as the subject. -Raymond]
  30. Worf says:

    Great – I’ll check my Outlook when I get in on Monday – that auto-delete was the most frustrating thing, and in the 3 years, I’ve never been able to identify the setting that causes it.

    (I did know it went into the deleted items, but fishing is something I shouldn’t have to do, and since inaction works for me, I do that.

  31. secretlou says:

    The flipside is those that put the entire message in the subject.  Also annoying.

  32. Miral says:

    I primarily use the subject line as a second-line spam filter (to weed out the spam that the main spam filters miss), so if people send me stupid subjects then I tend to just mark ’em as spam.

    Then when it comes time to actually read the messages I usually don’t even look at the subjects, so it really throws me when they include important details in there and not in the body of the email.  That’s my pet peeve.

    The only other time I use them is when scanning back looking for earlier messages in the thread, if I need additional context for some reason (or if I’ve decided to reply to an earlier message rather than the most recent one).  This is when generic subject names are a pain — but then again, this isn’t something I do very often, and might be improved if I actually used a threaded email client.

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content