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Paragraphs in Email–To Indent or Not to Indent?

Early one recent morning I got a phone call from someone whose name, let’s say, was Adam. Adam called because he and a coworker were having a disagreement about whether paragraphs should be indented in email.

I said, “No, paragraphs are not indented in email. You can indent bullet points, or you can block indent text to set it off, but paragraphs aren’t indented.”

It was immediately clear which side Adam was on when he said, “But could you indent paragraphs in email if you wanted to?”

I responded, “No one indents paragraphs in email. It’s just not standard.”

Adam countered, “But people used to think the world was flat.”

I could not argue with that historical truth, so I ended the call.

But the issue of indenting paragraphs in email has not ended. Twice in the last week class participants have submitted email samples with indented paragraphs.

Do three people who want to indent paragraphs set a new standard? No. But I am beginning to wonder where this idea is coming from or going.

Graphic illustrating writing etiquette with paragraphs in email. Commonly indentions are used to indicate a change in paragraphs, but in email this is unnecessary due to the space between paragraphs.

Yes, indenting paragraphs is still done in books and magazines. And it’s still done in handwritten notes. In these cases, the indenting helps readers identify where a new paragraph begins, since there may be little space between one paragraph and the next.

But in email the blank line before a new paragraph clearly signals the paragraph change. Indenting doesn’t make sense. It takes time we don’t have, and it looks old-fashioned.

If you live outside the U.S. and indented paragraphs are common in email in your country, please let me know. The world we knew as round has become flat, again. I need to know if email is changing too.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

31 comments on “Paragraphs in Email–To Indent or Not to Indent?”

  • Sure, I use paragraphs in longer email often. But as you noted it is just for changing the meaning and also better looking I think. Am I right or wrong?

  • Hi, Kamil. Yes, paragraphs are fine. What is wrong is indented paragraphs.

    Do you want to ask your question again?

  • Here in NZ I haven’t noticed indented paragraphs. Most e-mails I get from clients are too short to require multiple paragraphs anyway.

    In HTML the “paragraph” tag has no indents by default and it puts a blank line in between two paragraphs. I often get copy from clients that is indented and remove the indents before posting to their Web site or e-mail campaign. Nobody complains. Indents appear to be a thing of the past… but you can accomplish indenting using CSS (stylesheets) so the posibilities of adding them are present.

    I believe that indents aid in the written word, as people don’t add a blank space between lines, but hinder in the online world. Reading on a screen (or worse, a mobile device) requires a greater concern for readability; replacing indents with breaks makes the most sense.

  • Hi, Kevin. Thanks for your expert comment.

    And more than that, thanks for your genius in removing the glitches I have had with this site!

  • Not strictly related to indents, but more to paragraphing in general, my Italian students don’t leave a line between paragraphs, but just start their new sentence on a new line. I’m never sure whether they intend to write a new paragraph, or whether they have been taught that each new sentence should have its own line. I see it in handwritten texts as well as email.

  • Hi, Clare. Have you ever asked your students about that style of formatting? Like you, I would be confused by that approach.

  • Interesting topic. I have coached a fair amount of executives through an online Email Correspondence Course here in Japan.

    On certain occasions, I would see indentations on paragraphs – not sure if it was a glitch during transmission (highly unlikely) or it was just the student’s style of writing.

    On another topic – Just like how Clare had shared, most of my Japanese students also have the tendency to NOT leave a space between paragraphs. They write a new sentence on a new line which confuses the hell out of me – Did they want to create a new paragraph or if it was meant to be a part of the former paragraph? And quite often than not, just by looking at the sentence, it was related more to the latter.

    I associate their writing patterns with possibly on how they write in their native language as I have seen many Japanese individuals writing the same way.

    Some also have a weird way when hand writing a sentence that doesn’t quite fit on one line of a page. Instead of continuing on the next new line from the left margin, they usually continue below the former line slightly off the right margin of the page.

    Possibly they have learnt from someone at school or at work. Totally boggles me. 🙂

    p.s. Glad I stumbled upon your website. Great literature. 🙂

  • I recommend asking for your client’s preference. Otherwise, it’s probably wise to indent paragraphs in a corporate profile.

  • Long ago in an introductory Computer Science class and through common knowledge I just learned people do not indent paragraphs in email. Even web articles are not indented, and I write quite a few of those actually. Yes I am American, and yes I have found it a little peculiar when people do indent paragraphs their emails.

  • You know, I learned to type years ago on a manual (not electric) typewriter. At the time, we were taught to indent paragraphs. I had been e-mailing for years before I realized that I was the only one indenting paragraphs in my e-mails. It was an old habit that I wasn’t even paying attention to.

  • Hello, I’m from Argentina. I was talking about indenting or not a paragraph in an email with my boss. I always do it, he never. In spanish we always do it and it’s a sign of education to do it, but appears to be in english is not used…

  • Hello, Sebastian. Thank you for commenting. You explained that people who write in Spanish always indent paragraphs in email. Yet your boss does not. Is that because he is not from a Spanish-speaking country?

    Please share more information about the difference between your choice and your boss’s choice. I would like to know more about how people write email in Spanish.

    Thank you.


  • I have textbooks that teach students to indent emails that are of a personal nature such as writing to your mother, friends, or even co-workers that are your friends. All of them have the same approach. So you have all sorts of styles from traditional to a bit more formal. Still yet, we have this debate about when to indent. I have never seen any of my books that I use to teach English require you to indent a business email or letter. Keep in mind that you are performing the task of writing a letter. On might be taught a certain style based on the teacher’s preference, textbook (curriculum), and so on. I do not see any reason for indenting a business email. I do see cause to indent written letters, informal emails however. On the ohter hand, you do not have to indent. More over, the British paragraph and the American paragraph are known for indenting even in current times. So it is important to consult style books and also to know what is the function of what you are writing. I do not think there is anything wrong with indenting emails actually. I have an email etiquette book or two or three.

    On another note, Japanese students are taught from a sentence at a time perspective when teaching English Grammar. So when they write, they are taught to list rather than express themselves through the paragraph from left to right. Hyphening is an issue as well. The idea is that the native teacher should be teaching them to right in the British or North American paragraph format and all of its functions. It takes time to shift them from “circular thinking, but it can be accomplished over a periof of a year or so. They almost always learn what was described from their Japanese Teachers of English. There are sudden changes in story and direct translation problems as well. There are also some really good witty writers that do not use the “listing” style. Listing has its place in a paragraph, but not as the main function of delivering information. I think that you just have to teach them the basics of a paragraph. Certainly, handwritten work is mostly used in Japan. Indenting might be a good thing to teach them. That is my take on this. Hope it helps.

    Mata ne!

  • Victor, thank you for sharing your views. I have never read about Japanese composition styles–very interesting!

    I am not familiar with the expression “Mata ne!” but it appears you think I should be. I will rise to the challenge and learn it.


  • Ok…will I will take it all under consideration…however, just something to think about…not just skipping to the very next line and indenting to indicate a paragraph break and instead leaving a blank additional space after a paragraph ends and a new one begins is ecologically unsound which makes it in a sense anti-Green which also leads to political incorrectness. You see there are still some people out there who print their e-mails so not indenting on very next line and skipping a whole blank line makes e-mails longer and therefore makes the printouts longer which in some cases for very long detailed e-mails which may even at some point become part of legal action makes them even go to a second page or third page or even more pages. This kills trees, and adds to air pollution, (all those chainsaw emissions and freight carrier emissions and electricity burned when you need to shred more paper, etc etc etc). Think about it, if you do have to print even longer and longer e-mails and you need to save them for the record….(ooops my computer might have just crashed or been hacked and I might have lost my entire Electronic Intenretic Ethernetic record)….and this then may even require more or higher capacity file folders which again eats up more paper kills more trees and and creates even more truck delivery pollutant emissions not to mention potentially requiring even more file cabinets to the point that we all have to move into the street to live and work because there are so many file cabinets we can’t get into our homes.
    Can you imagine what that might be like?!
    So I say we all need to think twice before we just click enter twice to start a new un-indented paragraph and hasten the end of the world as we know it or at the very least it causes us all to wear sterile masks like in Japan.

    And I ran a test: it takes just as much time to click twice on “enter” to skip a space as it does to click once on “enter” and once on “tab” to just go to the next line and indent….so there goes the “more efficient” argument, n’est pas?

    Kind regards from this old dog to all the “new agers”

  • I agree. We should eradicate bad habit of indenting e-mails!

    I am traveling around south east Asia a lot for work. Here, some people do indent paragraphs and every time I see it, I am annoyed. I am annoyed, because it simply looks ugly. Actually I asked my local co-worker who was indenting to stop indenting no matter what the reasoning was.

    I think it is a simple matter of efficiency. Efficiency is beauty. Inefficiency is ugly. Indenting helped differenciating each paragraph in time of hand-writing, but not in time of e-mailing and blogging. All you need to do at the end of each paragraph is to hit “enter” key with your right little finger.

    If you compare what I am writing now with the following, the difference is clear.

    Indented version:

    Dear Lynn,

      Thank you for posting an interesting article. I agree. We should eradicate bad habit of indenting e-mails from the business communication!

      I am traveling around south east Asia a lot for work. Here, some people do indent paragraphs and every time I see it, I am annoyed. I am annoyed, because it looks ugly. Actually I asked my local co-worker who was indenting to stop indenting.

      I think it is a simple matter of efficiency. Indenting helped differenciating each paragraph in time of hand-writing, but not in time of e-mailing and blogging.

    The space shown above doesn’t make any sense, helps nothing. Every time I go to the next paragraph, I feel somewhat like I am getting dizzy slightly or slipping on icy street.

  • Satoshi, thanks for your spirited comments.

    Something I like to remember about writing is that it pays to follow the writing standards of a culture. In the United States, we begin business letters with the salutation “Dear _____” even though we may not feel the reader is dear to us.

    If standard behavior in Southeast Asia is to indent paragraphs in email, then I would indent them in my communications with business people from that area of the world.

    Sometimes it is difficult to know which behaviors are standard and which are misguided, but we can do our best by following experts in writing and etiquette.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your views.


  • I just wanted to comment on this, even though I’m a little late. I’m 19 and I live in the US. I’m an online school student and work from home, so I have to be very skilled grammar wise as everything I do is done via the internet. I began questioning indentation in emails once I received emails from my new science teacher. It was clear she was trying to be very business – like. That made me wonder: “teachers are supposed to be very smart and should know how to format an email correctly.” I believe that email paragraphs should not be indented.

  • My boss indents his email, even if the email is one sentence. It drives me mad and Im not sure why. Should I correct him or let it go?

  • Hi, Barry. You might ask your boss why he indents paragraphs in email, and you might tell him you have read that it is not recommended.

    If you would like to send him the link to this blog post, let me know. I can delete your comment, so he won’t see it.


  • Great article, lol. Yes, I, too, have encountered this. I’ve seen indented paragraphs from many, and I think it’s based on some old world notion. When I entered the working world, indents in any type of letter was not standard, whether it’s handwritten, printed or emailed. If someone wants to indent, go right ahead, but I don’t have to. I don’t need to. My reading comprehension is fine. I don’t need pretty finite formatting, lol.

  • I love this article because it confirms what I’ve sensed intuitively; indenting in emails is fussy and pretentious to others besides me! I have a friend who indents every paragraph in personal emails she writes to me. I answer her in blocked form. We’ve carried on this dance for a long time and now I feel like saying something to her, in a way that doesn’t seem patronizing. The funny thing is she is a teacher and is probably trying to be proper and educated as if she is writing a carefully composed hand-written note to me. Any advice? It is starting to really annoy me, although I tell myself there are worse things in life!! Right?
    Thanks in advance.

  • Hi, Miriam. Do you ever talk to your friend? If you do, you might ask her why she indents in her emails. In the conversation, you could tell her why you do not indent.

    You are right: There are many worse things in life!

    Thanks for sharing your situation.


  • Sorry to say, I am with Adam on this one.

    I indent my emails. Old fashioned it maybe… but I always say, Old is Gold.

    Unless it comes with jail sentence, I will not stop doing it. 🙂

    Looks neater, traditional and more classy than a big chunk of text all in one block.

  • Hello, Somnath. I would never suggest having a big chunk of text in one block in an email. Short chunks of text are much easier for readers to understand.

    You are correct that you will not go to jail for indenting paragraphs in email. However, your messages may come across as odd and old-fashioned. Is that the way you want to communicate?

    Thank you for sharing your view.


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