Word wrap in emails

There was a time when ordinary people never wrote words to a computer or smartphone screen.

Lines ended where the author decided to end the line. And if he/she wrote…

I am no poet
I have no art
But do my part

… then that STAYED at three lines, each of four words. Which was fine for poets.

If you’ve ever used a manual typewriter to put actual ink on real paper, you will know that starting new lines in the right place is quite tricky.

Most people who spend time writing things today can forget all these old problems. They happily type away, and the device they are typing into takes care of starting new lines as necessary. The device will even “move everything along” when you go back to something you’ve written and add bits or take some out.

Magic! And very welcome.


What happens when a document is viewed on a different device?

I am writing this on a desktop computer. My screen is so big that I’m only using part of it for this… over-long lines are hard to read. I’ve just “stretched” my window to use more of the screen, and even with the wide margins and toolbars at the sides of this paragraph, it doesn’t use four lines.

But many readers will view this page on a smartphone. The lines will be “chopped” more frequently.

And it is a wonderful thing, and usually works very well.


Except in some areas of computing, in particular in the world of email. And it falls over particularly badly if sender or receiver, or both, choose to use plain text email. (The link will open a post by me about what that is, if you want clarification. It should open in a new tab… go there, if your browser doesn’t take you (you can set it to do that!), and then just close it to get back here.

In the case of plain text email, sometimes there will be no problems. But bad combinations of settings between the sending computer and the receiving one arise easily, and create the following possibilities…

(Obviously, in all cases, the sender will be seeing something sensible. But…)

The receiver may see each paragraph as a single line. He/ she will have repeatedly to scroll his/her display to read the email. Very tedious.

The receiver may see the paragraphs as separate, but with individual lines now using the full width of the receiver’s screen. This is a mild nuisance, as extra vertical scrolling is necessary, but it’s not(?) too bad… as long as the sender set the “break lines here” number to something sensible.

A really tiresome combination of settings and displays mean that a whole bunch of extra new line start occur.

I’ll have to describe that, because the fact that I don’t know what screen you are reading this on means I can’t put an example together without risking it not appearing on your screen as it appears on my screen.

Let’s say that the SENDER has his system set up to start new lines automatically. He only presses enter to end a paragraph. And then perhaps does another, to create a gap between the paragraphs. And as he types, extra new lines are inserted so that his text fits the space he’s assigned for it on his screen.

Let’s say his screen is 30 characters wide. (And yes, I know about proportional fonts. I’m leaving that element out of this. The same principles pertain.)

A 100 character paragraph would occupy three and a bit lines… on the sender’s screen.

Let’s say the recipient’s screen is 20 characters wide. In a perfect world… and things DO work this way with some combinations of display and settings… the paragraph would “flow” to 5 lines.

So far, so good.

But if the sender sticks to using plain text emails, for the benefits they offer, he will either have made a setting in his email software or accepted the default setting chosen by the author of the software.

Continuing the example above, suppose the sender has set the limit per line to 25 characters.

If the recipient’s screen is more than 24 characters wide, the paragraph will display nicely as four lines. (Well, “nicely”, if you don’t mind some wasted horizontal space if the screen is much more than 24 characters wide”!)


If the recipient’s screen is 20 characters wide, he’ll see your 100-character paragraph looking something like….


That’s supposed to suggest 8 lines… the 1st, 3rd, etc of 25 characters each, and the 2nd, 4th, etc 5 characters each.

This is a very tiresome format!

But trying to “mess with” it risks making what some recipients see in the even more annoying “each paragraph one LONG line” layout. Sigh.

Forgive an abrupt end to this? Sorry. That’s it for now.