What’s the difference between “plain text” and “HTML” email?

Email can be sent in several formats the most common being plain text and HTML. We'll look at the difference, and which might be preferable.

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I tried posting to a moderated email discussion group I’m on, but my post was rejected because the moderator said it was “html”. They wanted me to switch to “plain text”. What are they talking about, and how do I do it? 

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. It’s the way web pages such as this one are encoded to handle things like bolditalics and even color text red.

Plain text is, well, it’s plain.

There are reasons and times you might want to use both. Switching’s not hard, if you know where to look.

Of course, where you look depends on how you send your email.

Plain Text and HTML

In the beginning (so to speak) there was plain text. Quite literally, plain text is text, and only text, along with a couple of simple representations for things like end-of-line.

Plain text has no formatting. Plain text typically is represented as looking very plain. It’s often displayed using what’s called a “mono-spaced” font – meaning that each character takes up the same space on the line. Here’s an example:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

HTML started as the way to describe how web pages should look. It includes ways to specify formatting, colors, positioning, and some amount of layout. As email became more popular, people started wanting to make their messages “look” as nice as they felt web pages looked. They wanted that formatting, the ability to put in pictures, and the like.

Let’s look at our example again, this time in HTML:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

In this example I’ve:

  • Specified a specific type-face or font
  • Specified a size for the font
  • indicated that the word “brown” should be bold
  • indicated that the phrase “lazy dog” should be in italics

How’d I do that? Here’s what the HTML encoding actually looks like:

<span style=”font-family: ‘Times New Roman’, Times, serif; font-size: 12pt;”>The quick <strong>brown</strong> fox jumps over the <em>lazy dog</em>.</span>

You can see that the HTML format is quite a bit larger than the plain text form. It has to be, to include all that additional formatting information.

HTML and Email

One thing that’s important to know about HTML format used in email, is that not all email programs know how to interpret it. Almost all do these days, but a few stragglers do not.

What does that mean? That means that if you send out your email looking like this:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Some people may see this as your message, or worse, instead:

<span style=”font-family: ‘Times New Roman’, Times, serif; font-size: 12pt;”>The quick <strong>brown</strong> fox jumps over the <em>lazy dog</em>.</span>

Quite the mess, right? Extremely difficult to read, right?

In particular some mailing list services don’t handle HTML properly or can be configured to reject it, which is probably why your mailing list moderator has asked you not to use it.

Choosing HTML or Plain Text

Choosing Plain Text or HTML formatting for your email can, in most email programs, be done one of two ways:

  • You can set a default for all email.
  • You can change the format of the current message as you compose it.

Exactly how you do this (or if you can, in fact, change the default) will vary based on what mail program you’re using.

I’ll show how to do both in Outlook Express as an example.

To choose which format you want Outlook Express to use by default, click the Tools menu, select Options, and click on the Send tab in the resulting dialog:

<br

Under Mail Sending Format, select HTML or Plain Text as appropriate.

To change the current format of a message that you are composing, click on the Format menu, and then make sure that the format you want, Rich Text (HTML) or Plain Text is selected:

<br

The appearance of your message will probably change, and if switching from HTML to Plain Text, you may get a warning that you’re about to lose your formatting.

Which should you use?

Unless there’s a requirement, like perhaps your mailing list, it really depends.

Warning: personal opinion ahead.

I really tend to favor plain text email. The focus should be on the message, not how “pretty” it looks. Plain text email is smaller, delivers and downloads quicker, and is also much less likely to be erroneously marked as spam.

Personally, I don’t really see a need for lots of cutesy images and stationary – to me they just detract from the message. In cases where people have images blocked (which is the default for many email programs) the message actually looks worse, as the images are replaced by placeholders.

On the other hand, some people do want their email to look much richer. You’ll often see a lot of businesses using HTML email to make their message look more formal, more professional, and often much more in line with their corporate image.

This is a minor update to an article originally posted : June 2, 2006

There are 18 comments:

  1. maggie Reply

    i’m trying to write to you, but when i try to post my comment, it tells me it didn’t work. what happened ?

  2. Leo Reply

    No way for me to know without at lest the exact error message.

  3. MAGGIE Reply

    I FOUND A GENIAL WAY ON HOW TO GET RID OF THE FAMOUS HOTBAR”. I RESTORED MY COMPUTER UP TO ONE DAY BEFORE I ACCIDENTLY DOWNLOADED HOTBAR. WENT INTO START,HELP AND SUPPORT,CHOSE AN ACTIN, CLICKED ON RESTORING THE SYSTEM, CLICKED IN RESTORING THE COMPUTER AT A CERTAIN HOUR, PRESSED ON NEXT, CLICKED ONA DATE, CONFIRMED THE SELECTION, PRESSED ON NEXT. THHIS SHUTS DOWN THE COMPUTER AND OPENS IT ALL BY ITSELF. I TRIED TO WRITE TO YOU, BUT MY MESSAGE WOUDN’T GO OUT TO YOU.

  4. brandolph Reply

    hey mine may not be a comment but a question
    how can i set my yahoo or gmail to be receiving emails on plain text only?
    am using a phone just like outlook express but when i receive emails they are truncated coz they are too long

    please help

  5. Mario9 Vidal Reply

    All your explanation are good. My problem is to change Plain Text to HTML Format in Yahoo with Windows Vista Home Premium. Can you help me? Thanks in advance: Mario Vidal

  6. David Reply

    To change the current format of a message click on the Format menu, and then make sure that the format you want, Rich Text (HTML) or Plain Text is selected:” Unfortunately, my register must be off because those choices, “Rich Text (HTML), or Plain Text, are grayed out.I don’t have the option to change. I did before but now I cannot open any hyperlinks sent to me in Outlook Express.
    Thank you

  7. Tom Reply

    My problem is a bit different. All my incoming mail is in plain text (Arial 12 font). It has never been like that. Only clue: I recently used an HTML file to establish my Signature for my email messages. Can you help me get things back to receiving email the way the sender meant to send it? Thank you. Tom

  8. LK Reply

    Hi Leo,
    I’m trying to set up a computer for someone who is having vision problems and needs larger fonts for both sent and received email. It seems like a simple thing to do for email that is being composed and sent, but I can’t seem to manage it as a default for email that has been received. I’ve tried in Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird. No luck. Would you have any advice?
    thanks,

    If you’re setting up a computer for someone who needs things bigger, I wouldn’t focus on just one or two applications, but rather the entire system by changing the DPI setting: How can I make the text on my screen larger?

    - Leo
    08-Apr-2009
  9. Jim Ford Reply

    I am using MS Office and wife is using Outlook Express. Both emails are now receiving HTML emails but not converting to plain text unless we do so prior to forwarding; and then pics are deleted. Is there a setting that has been changed that I cannot find.

    Thank you for your help.

  10. Timothy Takemoto Reply

    I agree with your preference for plain text, though for different reasons. I would not mind pretty email. But I find that the quoting system in htlm email does not always work.

    In text email
    > the quoted text is on a line with an greater than sign at the beginning.
    (In some email programs, forget the name, one can have the senders name before the greater than sign)
    Tim> This is a line written by time.

    Either of these designations of what texts is quote is very useful, if not essential.

    In html email however the quoted text is placed on lines formatted such that they begin with a horizontal bar.

    I find that this formatting often does not work, in that either the quoted text lacks a bar, or the following line of my text (my response) is given a bar. I find myself attempting to format that bar, and see the bar coming into places that
    I do not want it, or attempting to remove the bar
    and seeing it also removed from places that I do.
    It is very annoying. If only it worked, html
    email would be okay.

    There is one other problem. When email is sent
    out as text I beileve that line feeds are automatically added ever x characters (settable up
    to about 70 or 80 characters). In HTML email there
    is no such setting, and many people seem to
    just keep typing. I have a wide screen compputer
    so I must reduce the size of the email window to
    avoid having to read 20 inch (?) lines of text.
    In non space delimited languages (Japanese) when
    one reduces the size of the email window the
    carriage feeds occur independly of the meaningful
    breaks in the text such that breaks occur the mi
    ddle of words. Perhaps these breaks would also
    occur in the middle of words in text email too,
    but I think that it encorages us to put our own
    line feeds into the text and not just to keep typing on and on adinfinitum.

    This reponses is too long but while html email
    sounds like a good idea and I am in favour of
    non-verbal communiation, in practice it has
    important flaws.

    Tim

  11. Timothy Takemoto Reply

    In html email however the quoted text is placed on lines formatted such that they begin with a horizontal bar.

    Sorry that should be a “verticle bar” like this:
    | html quoted text looks kind of like this.

  12. Beverly Carbonara Reply

    I appreciate the thoroughness of your explanation of the difference between HTML and plain text. When I googled your page came up. Nice Job! By the way I opted out when the window popped up to sign up for emails of other helpful tips but if you could include me I would be grateful.

  13. J Wright Reply

    Is there a way to unscramble those illegible emails? The sender, who emails lots of articles, says I am the only one who has a problem reading his emails. At least, nobody else has complained. His personal emails are perfect. It’s those that he forwards from other sources that are garbled. This has begun recently. What to do?

    It depends on what email program you use, and exactly how the message is garbled. It’s supposed to just work, but as you can see that isn’t always the case.

    Leo
    08-Jul-2011

  14. Paritosh Hajra Reply

    In an email program I was pretty confused to send a mail whether in “Text” format or “HTML”.HTML format was not working properly.Then I switched to “Text” format found it works and later sent the mail.But I was having a doubt in my mind that whether the recipient got it properly.The system shown your formatting might be changed. Reading this extremely helpful article on Mail format clears all my confusion.Thanks a lot.

  15. Les Reply

    I use ‘plain text’ whenever I can but recently the font has changed to italics. I’m not using ‘stationery’. How do I get it back to a normal font? I don’t mind fiddling with the registry if that’s what it takes. OE6 v5.0 XP SP3
    Thanks.
    Les.

  16. Michael Reply

    I thought this may be of interest. My wife’s O.S. is XP & Mine Ws 7, with O email.
    For a long time she was unable to open, or see any attachments sent from my lap top which is set up on HTML.
    Eventually I changed my format to Plain Text when emailing with attachments, problem solved!

  17. bob D. Reply

    1) this explanation of plain v fancy was posted y2006 by Leo and has comments from y2006-09
    since then windows and yahoo and even google have made advancements in this issue
    2) windows offers a “blank page” – here you have all the goodies clickable of html and even more
    fancy dancy prancy elabating stuff, plus you can copy the finished page paste it into onto your
    email, send the email, then put the work page (blank page) on desktop, all in short time
    3) Yahoo.com offers the same and yet somewhat more fancy :: somehow you have to
    get into your favorites the standard page so if you want std at hand then you have it and at same time
    when you email it, it goes in a standard set by Yahoo fancy page which i like best of all – i send plain
    receiver inbox gets Yahoo Fancy
    4) Yahoo also has their now email blank setup with all the fancy stuff and more than html i think but
    whatever, i dont use this fancy standard Yahoo but i use their old standard email to write on page
    they have updated to their idea of best quality page with their choices of fancy and thus net dummies
    like me can do it fancy with the flick of a wrist etc
    5) there are different times to use each of above, so play around and see what comes, you can always
    put onto email send to your own inbox then you have sight of finished thus can pick whichever
    ____________________________

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