University of Botswana History Department

Avoiding email attachments

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Email and attachments

The basic electronic mail message is a plain text file. That is, it consists simply of the standard alphanumeric characters. The word "hello" is sent as the letters "h", "e", "l", "l", "o". This is all that is sent. There is no font - the font is whatever the recipient's email program makes it. The letters are not bold, or italic, or underlined, or big or small - they are just letters. Each letter is represented by a single byte.

Because of this, email is extremely efficient and simple. However, sometimes we wish to transmit other types of file via email. To do this, we send them as attachments. An attachment is a file attached to an email message. In order to go across the Internet, it usually has to be saved in a special "encoded" format, and then decoded by the email program at the far end. (NB: "encoding" means simply using a special form of representation. It is not a secret code - in computing that is called encryption.) Most modern email programs handle this encoding automatically.

MS Internet Mail window showing attachment

In MS Internet Mail, a message with an attachment will look like this. The attachment in this example is a Microsoft Word document "att.doc".

When to use an attachment.

An attachment is used when you have to send a file which is not plain text. For example, if you are sending an image file you have to send it as an attachment. Also, very large plain text files have to be sent as attachments.

Word-processed documents as attachments

A word-processed document (e.g. a Microsoft Word .doc file) can be sent as an attachment. This is necessary if you wish to send the document in its formatted form - i.e., with italics, inderlining, justified text, different sized fonts, etc. etc. You will need to do this if, for example, you are submitting an article to a journal or sending someone a document ready to print.

However, some people send such attachments as a way of sending an ordinary email message. Thus, if they wish to send a circular to colleagues, instead of writing an email message they write a message in MS Word, save the file as an MS Word document, and attach it to a (blank) email message. This is a bad habit, for the following reasons:

  1. Microsoft Word .doc files can carry macro viruses. Plain email messages can not.
  2. Microsoft Word files can only be read if the recipient has Microsoft Word. Even if they have, there may be problems if they have an older version. Not everyone has Microsoft Word on their computer, whereas everyone connected to email can read plain text email.
  3. Microsoft Word .doc files are extremely inefficient for short messages. For example, if you type "This is a brief message." in a Microsoft Word 97 file and save it, the file will be 19KB. Yes, nineteen kilobytes. Remember that the actual letters in "This is a brief message." make up 24 bytes. An email message containing this phrase, sent by Microsoft Outlook, comes to about 370 bytes. (The excess over 24 is because of the various "header" lines which are added to the message with information about the source, address, etc.)

    This may not matter much when sending files on a local network, but when someone with a slow connection downloads a series of large files, only to discover that each contains a short message, they will not be pleased with the sender. In some parts of Africa users have to pay for email by the kilobye at rates which, in terms of their income, mean that such files are quite expensive to the recipient.


don't use Word document attachments as a way of sending ordinary email messages!

What to do instead:

The simplest thing, of course, is to compose your email messages using your email program. However, if you have something already written in a word- processed document (e.g. a Word .doc file) which you want to send as email, it is quite easy to copy the text to an email message. The following instructions assume you are using MS Word and Windows 95 (or above).

  1. Start your email program and open a new message to whoever you are writing to.
  2. Open the Word document in MS Word.
  3. Select the part of the text you want to copy, by highlighting it with the mouse. If you want to copy the whole text, choose "Select All" on the Edit menu (CTRL-A).
  4. Choose "Copy" from the Edit menu (CTRL-C).
  5. Now go to the email message window. (You can move between different programs by clicking the small bars on the "Taskbar" at the bottom of the screen.)
  6. Click in the email message window, where you write email messages.
  7. Choose "Paste" from the Edit menu (CTRL-V). The text should be copied to the message window. Note that all the formatting will disappear. But for ordinary email you don't need formatting, you just need the letters.

This may sound complicated but if you try it you will realize that it is actually a very simple use of the Clipboard. (In Windows, text or other material is copied - by CTRL-C etc. - to the Clipboard, from which it can be pasted to another window. Any Windows user should be familiar with the use of the Clipboard.)

If you must send a Word attachment:

The biggest problem with Word document attachments is the risk of viruses. This is made worse by the appearance of Melissa-type viruses which use MS Outlook to transmit macro-virus-carrying attachments. Many users will treat any Word attachment with great suspicion, and may well delete your message unopened. If you do actually need to send a Word document, it is usually better to save it in RTF formatn and attach the RTF version. An RTF document cannot carry macro viruses, as it can not include macros.

How to save in RTF format:

When you save a document, choose the "Save As" command on the File menu. This will open a window with options. (This is the same window you get when you save a document for the fisrt time using "Save".) Go the box "Save as type" near the bottom and click on the right to open the menu. Go down to "Rich Text Format" and click on this. Then click "Save" as usual. You should now have an RTF document instead of a Word *.doc file. The "Save As" window is illustrated below:

Screen shot of Save as RTf command

Note, however, that there are reports of some viruses which cause documents to be saved in .doc format even though you think you are saving in RTF, and have a .rtf extension. This is a serious problem since at least some versions of Word recognize that the file is really a .doc file and open it accordingly, without asking for confirmation, even if the "Confirm Conversion at Open" setting is switched on. You can check by opening the file in a text editor such as Notepad - or better, Metapad. [See the software page for how to get Metapad.] An RTF file will look like this:

{\rtf1\ansi\ansicpg1252\uc1 \deff0\deflang1033\deflangfe1033 {\fonttbl {\f0\froman\fcharset0\fprq2 {\*\panose 02020603050405020304}Times New Roman;} {\f2\fmodern\fcharset0\fprq1 {\*\panose 02070309020205020404}Courier New;} {\f16\froman\fcharset238\fprq2 Times New Roman CE;} {\f17\froman\fcharset204\fprq2 Times New Roman Cyr;} {\f19\froman\fcharset161\fprq2 Times New Roman Greek;} {\f20\froman\fcharset162\fprq2 Times New Roman Tur;} {\f21\froman\fcharset186\fprq2 Times New Roman Baltic;} {\f28\fmodern\fcharset238\fprq1 Courier New CE;} {\f29\fmodern\fcharset204\fprq1 Courier New Cyr;} {\f31\fmodern\fcharset161\fprq1 Courier New Greek;} {\f32\fmodern\fcharset162\fprq1 Courier New Tur;} {\f33\fmodern\fcharset186\fprq1 Courier New Baltic;}} {\colortbl;\red0\green0\blue0;\red0\green0\blue255;\red0\green255\blue255;\red0 \green255\blue0;\red255\green0\blue255; \red255\green0\blue0;\red255\green255\blue0;\red255\green255\blue255; \red0\green0\blue128;\red0\green128\blue128;\red0\green128\blue0;\red128\green0 \blue128;\red128\green0\blue0;\red128\green128\blue0;\red128\green128\blue128; \red192\green192\blue192;} {\stylesheet {\widctlpar\adjustright \lang7177\cgrid \snext0 Normal;} {\* \cs10 \additive Default Paragraph Font;} {\s15\qj\li1440\widctlpar\adjustright \lang7177\cgrid \sbasedon16 \snext15 Long Quote;} {\s16\widctlpar\adjustright \f2\fs20\lang7177\cgrid \sbasedon0 \snext16 Plain Text;}} {\info {\title Hello} {\author Lederer} {\operator Lederer} {\creatim\yr2000\mo1\dy21\hr16\min14} {\revtim\yr2000\mo1\dy21\hr16\min14} {\version2} {\edmins0} {\nofpages1} {\nofwords0} {\nofchars0} {\*\company I/C HIGHPERFORMANCE SYSTEMS} {\nofcharsws0} {\vern89}} \widowctrl\ftnbj\aenddoc\formshade\viewkind4\viewscale75\pgbrdrhead\pgbrdrfoot \fet0\sectd \linex0\endnhere\sectdefaultcl {\*\pnseclvl1\pnucrm\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxta .}} {\*\pnseclvl2\pnucltr\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxta .}} {\*\pnseclvl3\pndec\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxta .}} {\*\pnseclvl4\pnlcltr\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxta )}} {\*\pnseclvl5\pndec\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxtb (} {\pntxta )}} {\*\pnseclvl6\pnlcltr\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang{\pntxtb (} {\pntxta )}} {\*\pnseclvl7\pnlcrm\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxtb (} {\pntxta )}} {\*\pnseclvl8\pnlcltr\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxtb (} {\pntxta )}} {\*\pnseclvl9\pnlcrm\pnstart1\pnindent720\pnhang {\pntxtb (} {\pntxta )}}\pard\plain \qc\widctlpar\adjustright \lang7177\cgrid {\b\fs32 Hello \par }\pard \widctlpar\adjustright {\fs28 This is a file created in } {\i\fs28 Microsoft Word} {\fs28 . It contains no particular information. \par }}

A .doc file will have strange characters when opened in a text editor. In some text editors, such as Notepad, it may only appear as a few characters long. In Metapad it may look something like this: (an image file has been used due to the difficulty of getting the peculiar special characters to appear properly in all browsers)

Word .doc file opened in text editor, showing special characters

To summarize:

  1. Do not use Word document attachments as a method of sending ordinary messages. Use them only when there is a special reason why you need to send the formatted text.
  2. If you have to send a Word document attachment, use RTF rather than the normal Word .doc format.

HTML email

There is one further complication to mention: HTML email. Some modern email programs accept email messages which are formatted as HTML documents, and display them to the reader with the formatting included. If you get an email message which includes underlining, large type, coloured type, etc., then it is probably HTML email.

HTML email is certainly a far better way of sending formatted messages than using Word document attachments. It is much more efficient than a Word document, and even if the recipient does not have an email program capable of displaying HTML formatting, the message will still be comprehensible. For example, a message intended to look like this:

Hello! This is an HTML-formatted message.

would look like this:

<big><font color="#0000FF">Hello!</font> This is an <i>HTML-formatted</i> message.</big>

- still readable. However, the fact remains that if you send HTML email, a lot of your recipients will get, not pretty formatting, but gibberish from which they have to pick out the message.

HTML email appears to be safe, but the Bubbleboy virus was able to exploit a Microsoft security hole to carry a virus in an HTML email message. (See the Virus Page.) So it may not be quite as safe as plain text email.

We recommend that you use plain text email rather than HTML email.

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Copyright © 2000 University of Botswana History Department
Last updated 20 September 2000