97

Sometimes when I forward a professional email, I find myself wanting to slightly modify it. Either because there's a small English mistake (I work with non-native speakers) or because, since they're talking to me, they might reference this person in a more informal manner than they would when addressing them directly - for example saying Bob instead of Mr. Jones.

What I've done until now is correct the obvious typos, leave the other mistakes, and rewrite the email instead of forwarding it when there's a content problem. Hence the title question, can I modify it instead of rewriting it, or is it frowned upon?

  • 141
    Forwarding is like reporting what someone told you with the use of quotation marks, meaning you are exact-quoting. Thus it is IMPERATIVE that you do NOT modify the mail being forwarded, that would equal to attribute someone a quote he never said, bad. – Caterpillaraoz Oct 19 '17 at 9:02
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    The only time I can see this being OK is when you're adding content without modifying anything already there and then highlighting the changes you made by using a different color font or something. This is what Snow mentions in their answer. I've found this to be useful when the original email has a list of questions and I'm inputting answers before I forward it on. – Engineer Toast Oct 19 '17 at 12:46
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    @Caterpillaraoz Is that an answer or a comment? – corsiKa Oct 19 '17 at 19:55
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    Is it just me or the amount of answers in comments increased substantially these days? – Pedro A Oct 19 '17 at 23:59
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    @Caterpillaraoz please use the answer box. This has got 93 upvotes - but maybe 40 people would downvote. In addition, the comments below an answer with this content could be important. – Tim Oct 21 '17 at 19:05

12 Answers 12

266

Can I modify it instead of rewriting it?

Absolutely not.

Is it frowned upon?

Absolutely.

When you're forwarding an email, it's implied that you're leaving the original email chain untouched or that you use some kind of formatting to make it clear where you're adding comments. Stealthily1 making changes is Not Good. If you're "only" making harmless typo fixes that could be seen as petty or like you're overly fixated on spelling and grammar, and you risk being seen as having more of an administrative role2. Many, if not most, people will be annoyed or hurt that you felt the need to "fix" what they wrote originally, even if what they wrote was crap.

And if you're making more substantial changes by guessing at intent, which can happen easily when you're improving the writing of someone writing in their second or third language, you can cause all sorts of problems.

If you're communicating with third parties and you're worried about perception issues of some content or even formatting earlier in the email chain, that's a clear sign that you shouldn't be forwarding that mail.

From now on, consider the original mail as inviolate and forward it as-is and only when needed. The risk in making even minor changes is that it trains you to not consider modifying those mails an issue which can start blurring the borders between "he missed an S here" and "I'm sure he meant that we would be making that deadline". The only exception is if you're asked to simply forward something from a senior person on to a third/external party. There you can typically correct the occasional typo, but that's typically reserved for admin / communicator roles.


1 - As UKMonkey commented, obvious and visible changes like redacting financial information or removing the first part of the email chain are exceptions here.

2 - None of the above applies if you actually are in an administrative / assistant role as in that case part of your responsibilities usually include improving and passing along communication. I'm not slighting admin roles here, but it is a problem if you're a contributor / manager and you're gaining uncharacteristic visibility for administrative tasks. More on that here and here.

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    Emphasis on the 'Stealthily' - Sometimes you want to explictly hide something - for example someones address or a monetry value on a bill/payslip. Removing the address but clearly marking that it was there & has been removed is not unreasonable since if that point becomes a contention for some reason then that specific information can be requested. – UKMonkey Oct 19 '17 at 14:07
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    I'd like to also add that when you forward a message, that person's name is still associated with what you've now edited, and as Lilienthal pointed out you're only guessing at intent. If you forward an email of mine to someone, they'll read that as "Lord Farquaad says ...", but if you've edited my email, now you're falsely speaking on my behalf. If I made a mistake, let me live with that mistake, but please don't risk attaching my name to a mistake you may have made. – Lord Farquaad Oct 19 '17 at 15:13
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    There are cases where only a part of the email is required and the rest may well be left out (because it's not in context of the recepient, maybe has personal info, etc). In those cases, I'd put a mark (...) indicating there was more text in there. – Gürkan Çetin Oct 20 '17 at 5:51
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    I would be absolutely incensed if somebody modified my email then forwarded it on as if I'd written it. This is completely unacceptable and I can't see how that's anything over than entirely obvious. Only "[snip]" is okay. Even adding "[sic]" or modifying text and adding square brackets is not okay, whereas it would be if the original content were passed on within quotation marks. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 20 '17 at 13:34
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    And if there is something very unclear or obviously wrong in the forwarded part, point that out in your own text: (Please note that my boss accidentally wrote 3 in his email, but we currently have 4 gizmos) – user8036 Oct 20 '17 at 14:34
66

If I get a mail I want to forward but there's some inappropriate content, I do the following:

I write a complete new mail with:

  • the person who originally sent the mail in cc
  • I use quotes to indicate what was in the original mail. (eg. as MR X brought to my attention/said/...: "blah blah blah")

This way I can modify the content, leaving the original thought intact.

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    An alternative, if you want to keep the "flow" of the email-chain, and/or other, earlier emails are useful, would be to "forward" the email but completely remove the "problem" email and replace it with a summary as described above. – TripeHound Oct 19 '17 at 13:16
18

There's no need at all to modify a forwarded email unless there's something about it that's wrong enough to warrant a change.

Most of the time, I edit forwarded emails to add information or answer questions and mark these up in a different colour to make it obvious what I've done.

For example:

See my comments below in red

Editing the grammar/spelling of forwarded emails isn't needed if the meaning is obvious and can be seen as being a bit rude if you're including the sender in the email list.

  • I could see why correcting mistake could be seen as rude, which is why I haven't done it. I'm putting aside obvious typos; if I write for example mitsake instead of mistake, I would be much prefer the intermediate person to correct it before forwarding the email. I'm more concerned about "formality" issues though, some people could be annoyed if referenced not formally enough. – Nico Oct 19 '17 at 7:30
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    It doesn't matter. As long as you're using the right spelling/terms, that's all that matters to you. Someone else might be quite happy calling Bob Bob, but he's Mr Jones to you. He's still Bob to someone else. – user44108 Oct 19 '17 at 7:38
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    @Nico Bottom line: if you forward it, do so as is (minor typos and all). If there's something in it that makes you uncomfortable forwarding it as is (typos make the originator look foolish; informality that is OK sent to you, but you feel others shouldn't see; something confidential that should be redacted) don't forward it but summarise the salient points. – TripeHound Oct 19 '17 at 13:12
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    We make comments in another color all the time too. Easier to keep all the info together rather than repeat all the original questions or answer without being attached to the original questions (easy to miss answering one that way.). – HLGEM Oct 19 '17 at 20:23
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    A FREQUENT "need to edit a forwarded email" is to rip out overly-big email signatures and attached images. – KlaymenDK Oct 20 '17 at 12:03
17

Other answers have given answers based on reason and experience. I would like to add a source based answer.

According to Netiquette Guidelines (RFC 1855):

If you are forwarding or re-posting a message you've received, do not change the wording. If the message was a personal message to you and you are re-posting to a group, you should ask permission first. You may shorten the message and quote only relevant parts, but be sure you give proper attribution.

The "do not change the wording" is a subtle hint that you should not change the wording.

I would also like to emphasize one other thing: "you should ask permission first". It means that when you want to forward Alice's "Why can't Bob make someone else do this crap?" to Mr. Jones, you should not correct Bob to Mr. Jones and send it. You should ask Alice if it's fine to forward the message to Mr. Jones.

  • Hi Dzuris, I edited your question to remove code backticks and add some other emphasis formatting instead. This Meta gives a good overview of why we don't use code backticks here at The Workplace. Feel free to edit your answer if you prefer a different way of formatting your answer. – David K Oct 19 '17 at 18:38
  • Thanks, I will try to adjust in the future! I just changed "you should ask permission first" formatting to the same as "do not change the wording" as they are both citations from the quoted block and equal formatting seems more appropriate. Perhaps the word "emphasize" was misleading. – Džuris Oct 19 '17 at 18:41
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    @David Your comment about editing someone's answer is highly amusing in a thread about editing e-mails :-) – LLlAMnYP Oct 20 '17 at 10:24
11

After twenty years in the IT industry, here's how I've learned to handle forwarding emails:

  • Any changes to the original text are bolded and use red text (or some color). If these options aren't available (such as a plain-text message), I would instead use asterisks or some other way of indicating what parts changed
  • The top part (my message) includes the line "Changes to the original email are highlighted below in red", or something similar that explains about the formatting used above
  • If the forwarded email contains a long chain of emails that are irrelevant to the recipient, I will remove the chain starting with the first irrelevant email. I do NOT pick & choose after that point, however. Either the whole remaining chain goes or nothing does.

The actual "correct" process may depend on the culture - both company-wise AND region. All of my jobs have been in the Houston area, but obviously I've dealt with people all over the U.S. and many international locations as well.

Keep in mind, however, that if you change the original email without any of these caveats in place, you're essentially putting words in the original sender's mouth... and that's never a good thing.


As to your specific examples, I never correct names, typos or wording - only incorrect information (server names, URLs, etc.) that the recipient might need. If necessary, confidential information such as usernames/passwords gets deleted, but I place a highlighted comment in that spot noting that confidential information was removed.

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    "Any changes to the original text are bolded and use red text (or some color)" That relies on HTML emails. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 20 '17 at 13:38
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    @Omegacron: Nope, plain text email is just ASCII. ASCII has no markup whatsoever. It's just 95 plain characters. No bold, not even accents, pound or euro signs, nothing like that. That said, I don't think assuming HTML in professional email is a problem, certainly not for text markup. It definitely beats sending a .docx attachment. – MSalters Oct 20 '17 at 15:13
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    @MSalters some mail clients will bold words enclosed between asterisks. And even if they don't, enclosing in asterisks is historically used for adding emphasis in text-only emails, Usenet posts and BBS messages. – Mark Rotteveel Oct 20 '17 at 16:37
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    Some email systems strip out markup. Frustrating, but true. Then your edits are silent. – fectin - free Monica Oct 22 '17 at 15:47
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    "If the forwarded email contains a long chain of emails that are irrelevant to the recipient, I will remove the chain starting with the first irrelevant email....either the whole chain goes or nothing does." ...except of course for the remaining chain before the first irrelevant email. – RyanfaeScotland Oct 23 '17 at 23:11
8

The only changes you should make to an email that you forward deletions. In which case delete everything that is not relevant. If you can make it clear that the change is yours, inserting a line to show the correct date is allowable as well. If you do make deletions, make sure they don't change the context/meaning of the email (eg cutting off part of a sentence can be problematic) so err on the side of caution. If you do excise part of a sentence use ellipsis to show there was more in the original message.

Example:

Sometimes when I forward a professional email, I find myself wanting to slightly modify it.

[snip]

What I've done until now is correct the obvious typos, leave the other mistakes, ...

[snip]

Example of "modification" ... no actual modification; the correction is obviously not part of the quote:

The deadline for submission is Friday, October 20th at 2:30am so please get any submissions that need review to me by Thursday night.

The deadline is actually 2:30pm hence her need for submissions the previous day.

Remember that all submissions need to be blah blah blah ...

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    +1. This kind of obvious redaction is the only acceptable modification. – Ghotir Oct 19 '17 at 15:03
  • You may also want to explicit mention that picking and choosing specific mails from an email chain to delete instead of continuous block would also be problematic as you're misrepresenting the conversation at that point. – Lilienthal Oct 19 '17 at 15:17
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    Some people use ellipses in their original emails, so ellipses used to show a deletion should be in brackets. – Acccumulation Oct 20 '17 at 3:51
6

Is it okay to slightly modify a forwarded email?

It may be acceptable or preferable to block-quote instead: for example you could write,

Dear Mr. Jones,

I discussed this with my colleague and they told me that,

We'll include the changes which [Mr. Jones] requested; I expect we'll be able to demonstrate them next week.

Best wishes,
Nico

Note:

  • Block quote has the benefits of forwarding (i.e. you convey the message using the author's exact words)
  • It's politer to your reader than forwarding a whole email, because it's easier to read, because you edit-out any useless bits
  • Note how I put [Mr. Jones] in square brackets to show that this was an editorial modification (which I think is standard and acceptable when you block quote).

I suppose, when you're block-quoting, there it would be acceptable to silently correct any mere spelling mistakes, without using square brackets (the correction is a silent courtesy ... and better than retaining the spelling mistake and adding [sic] to it!).

But, do use editorial square brackets anywhere you change the wording.

Because I'm excessively pedantic I might also add an ellipsis ... to mark anywhere where I have deleted text within a block quote: but I don't recommend doing that, because doing that might uselessly make the quoted text harder to read.

  • When quoting a reply in a mail thread on a mailing list, I've seen people do [...] when they trim out a chunk of a quote (e.g. something you're not replying to). I've done that myself, and it works well in that context. I think it could be good when forwarding, too. Agreed that adding [sic] just highlights the mistake and shouldn't be done unless there was ambiguity. – Peter Cordes Oct 20 '17 at 1:52
  • I think if you're going to do any silent corrections, though, you should explicitly say "with light copy-editing by me" to make it clear that you tidied up an internal discussion for external presentation. And if you don't want to say that, then you shouldn't change anything that you don't mark with []. – Peter Cordes Oct 20 '17 at 1:53
  • If it's my signature on a business email (i.e. if it's quoted not forwarded) them I wouldn't feel obliged to highlight that I copy-edited spelling mistakes. – ChrisW Oct 20 '17 at 2:17
4

The correct way to change what someone else has written is:

Put any additions in [brackets], and

Replace any deletions with ... ellipses.

But do limit any changes to what's absolutely needed to make the meaning clear.

Example: President [Andrew] Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment ... .

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    This is fine in an English sentence utilising quotation marks, but an email cited in bulk is a different beast, and cannot be modified in this manner. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 20 '17 at 13:38
3

It was already described why it is generally considered unacceptable to alter a message to be forwarded.

There are however two practical exceptions I would like to share, to which me and the people I work with are widely used to. They both don't imply rewording or even reformatting the original mail.

1. Use the original mail as discussion wallboard

Unfortunately Stack Overflow/Markdown does not support coloring, so please consider bold and italic.

In this case, you will actually edit the text in the original mail, but will use colors or other visual highlights to separate your text from the author's original intent.

Original

From: orders@petfoods.biz To: djechelon@nyan.cat

Dear /usr/local/ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ,

about your order of 12kg of cat food, the shipping fee if $27.50. Please contact Mr. Dogg to plan a delivery to your house.

Your order ID is 28AC66F

Forwarded

From: djechelon@nyan.cat To: manager@nyan.cat

Boss, my considerations below

Original

From: orders@petfoods.biz To: djechelon@nyan.cat

Dear /usr/local/ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ,

about your order of 12kg of cat food -is he really so hungry?-, the shipping fee if $27.50. Please contact Mr. Dogg to plan a delivery to your house. Could you text me his number? I lost his contact

Your order ID is 28AC66F

2. Highlight for visibility

In this case, you are not rewording the email, but only using bold or Outlook's highlighter (especially the default yellow one) to highlight something that the original sender didn't highlight, without rewording.

From: djechelon@nyan.cat To: manager@nyan.cat

Boss, I made the order. Check it online

Original

From: orders@petfoods.biz To: djechelon@nyan.cat

Dear /usr/local/ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ,

about your order of 12kg of cat food, the shipping fee if $27.50. Please contact Mr. Dogg to plan a delivery to your house.

Your order ID is 28AC66F

In this case I highlighted the order ID to allow my boss (who is always hurrying) to easily spot the essential information.

And if the orignal mali si so badly speeeled or fOrmatted

You must either forward the email with its wording and formatting as it is, or if that is so bad it could damage the original sender, you may choose to quote pieces or summarize it to the audience without forwarding at all. Maybe one day someone from high will require to see the original mail; that's when you have to forward it.

2

If the person who sent you the email is the only person involved other than yourself and the recipient, then I would get the opinion of the sender. If they are fine with you correcting any mistakes and cleaning it up to improve their image in the eyes of the recipient, then I would say go for it. If there are others involved, then I would leave it as is unless specifically approached by the sender.

The reason for this is if there were others included in the message, they already have copies that will differ from what you send. If others see that the messages you are forwarding are different from the original, it can hurt your credibility.

2

I could see cases where "sanitizing" emails could be justified, e.g. if you're forwarding part of an internal discussion to a customer, but only if

  1. This is part of or at least implied in your role/job description
  2. There is a rule or guildeline that supports your decision

In other words, if the person writing the email is not aware that you might modify it, or you were not given authority to do so by that person (or, in some cases, a superior), any change in the text could be considered a breach of trust.

Many consider written communication a form of documentation, especially in a professional context. While correcting obvious spelling or grammar mistakes might seem harmless, any unsanctioned change threatens the validity of the text as well as your/their credibility.

I'll add that forwarding an email that the writer might not have expected to be forwarded, which might well be the case if it's written informally, can, in a worst case scenario, also constitute a breach of trust and/or confidentiality.

[C]an I modify it instead of rewriting it, or is it frowned upon?

It is acceptable if you have permission, either from the person writing the email or due to your role and company policy. Some people might still consider it rude if you correct minor mistakes.

If you do not have permission, it is a breach of trust.

I would recommend to consider forwarding an email equivalent to a quote. In both cases, any changes or comments should be clearly marked, e.g. by square brackets or, for longer passages, maybe a diffrent colour?

2

You are trying to deal with a problem the wrong way.

I find myself wanting to slightly modify it. Either because there's a small English mistake (I work with non-native speakers) or because, since they're talking to me, they might reference this person in a more informal manner than they would when addressing them directly - for example saying Bob instead of Mr. Jones.

There is no need to alter these errors or address them in this email unless they materially affect the meaning of the document.

If they do affect the meaning you need to email a response to the author to alert them and possibly to get them to issue a correction.

But if the errors are simply grammatical or spelling or form of address or similar non-critical issues, then if you feel the need to address these at all you should reply to the original author and draw attention to those issues and suggest/request they avoid them in the future.

Also consider if going through corrections like this is efficient. The whole idea of email is that it's efficient. Grammatic perfection, while desirable is not necessary for efficient communication.

Lastly any editing runs the risk of introducing unintentional errors or ambiguity. You may think you're doing it right, but I see edits introduce issues almost as often as I see them fix them.

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