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Don’t Change the Subject!

In a Better Business Writing class yesterday, an attendee named John made an important point about email subject lines. John said it bothers him when people change the subject in their reply to his email. The reason is that, with a different subject, he can’t search for the email using the same search term.

I agree with John.

Striving to be more efficient, people have begun updating subject lines to reflect a new stage of the communication.

Sample situation: When I teach a business writing course, I send participants an email request for prework. This is a sample subject line:

Prework for June 23 Writing Tune-Up: Action Requested by June 17

If people reply using the same subject, I can easily search for replies using “June 23” or “June 17” as a search term. Then I can drag the messages into a folder. But if someone changes the subject to “Prework Attached,” I can’t find the email easily in a search.

It’s fine if someone simply adds a word or a phrase to the end of an email subject, like this:

Prework for June 23 Writing Tune-Up: Action Requested by June 17–ATTACHED

If they just add a word, I will still be able to find the message by a subject-line search.

Of course, sometimes changing the subject makes sense. For example, when:

  • The person who emailed you had no subject
  • The original subject line no longer applies
  • You are writing about a completely new topic

But unless you have a good reason for doing so, don’t change the subject!

Do you like John’s idea? What do you want to share about email subject lines? I welcome your comments.





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.

8 comments on “Don’t Change the Subject!”

  • Of course, the other thing to keep in mind in this regard is that some, more-enlightened, email clients, such as Thunderbird, provide functionality to browse a mailbox in a ‘threaded’ form. The ‘Re: Original Subject line’ and ‘Re: Re: original Subject line’ allow a threaded view to show the progress of a ‘conversation’.

  • The good thing about the enlightened email programs is that they don’t need the subject line for this. They use codes in the email headers.

    Personally I like to have factual subjects; email threads potentially run for weeks in my business, and I rather have the topic updated based on the contents of the email. And I use the technology where it excels, in automatically categorizing and structuring.

  • I used to think about the fact of not changing the subject will be consider as a rude way to reply back. Showing no interest or showing that you did not have enough time to change it. But now with this point of view about the title or subject it makes sense.

  • I agree in principle. However, in practice, I find that I get a lot of email messages with absolutely terrible subject lines.

    “I need your help!” Um, ok.

    “2 PM conference call.” I’m not going to remember the subject of this particular conference call when I go searching for it three weeks later.

    “Member Letters” — when all I work on is member letters of one sort or another.

    I update a lot of these subjects so they make more sense to me. Per your example though, I do try to add the correct information instead of changing it completely. “I need your help” would probably be changed completely, but I would change my second example to “2 PM conference call – Writing Tune-Up class.”

  • Thank you for your helpful input, Terry, Joost, Lety, and RJ.

    Terry and Joost, I appreciate your comments about “enlightened” programs. It reminded me that I can search for all the messages in a thread. I had forgotten about that feature. However, John works for a company that uses Microsoft Office 2003. I do not know whether that early version of Office has the same feature.

    Lety, I have never thought it rude to not change someone’s subject. Interesting!

    RJ, thank you for your perfect examples of subject lines that cry out to be changed. It makes good sense to change them rather than to go crazy trying to find something.

    Thank you, everyone, for contributing to the conversation.


  • Hi! Have just discovered this wonderful site.

    As you say, normally I change the subject when the original subject no longer applies. However, I keep the original subject at the end, not the beginning.

    For example, I would say something like, “Shall we buy the iPad? (was Re: Flight schedules).”

    The way I learned it, it’s polite to change the subject when needed to signal a change in the conversation. It was stressed because in forums, especially when e-mail was new, people would keep writing to each other regardless of change of topic. Later, it would be difficult to run a search when the information was buried in a conversation thread with a completely different name.

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