Translations of this page

 [image of a Philosophical Gnu]

From: Reverend Father Martin Sylvester

Sorry I was unable to read your attachment. I hope the following is useful!

You sent me an email with an attachment in Microsoft Word format, which is not a standard Internet format, but a proprietary one owned by Microsoft, and protected by them so people can't be sure of reading it properly unless they buy expensive Microsoft software. If you had sent me your text inside a plain email (instead of as an attachment to an email), or as a plain text, rich text, HTML, or PDF attachment, then I would have been able to read it.

Distributing documents in Word format is not good for you or for others. You can't be sure what they will look like if someone views them with a different version of Word; some people may not be able to read them at all.

Receiving Word attachments is not good for you because they can carry viruses: see (please note that the link is dead; the article seems to have moved to

Sending Word attachments is not good for you, because a Word document normally includes hidden information about the author, enabling those with the know-how to pry into the life of the person who wrote it. Text that you think you deleted may still be embarrassingly present in the file, but simply hidden from you when you view it using Word. The person who reads your Word document with a different program might be able to see it all. Your attachments might even contain fragments of documents you were working on prior to sending your email, in text that's invisible to you, but visible to some of the people who receive your Word attachments. See for more information.

If someone is using a slow connection, or reading their email through their mobile (cellphone) or their handheld computer, your message might not be accessible to them at all if you send it as a Word attachment; if it is, it will take many, many times longer for them to download than if you send a plain email, and this could be very expensive for them on a wireless connection.

Worse still, sending people Word documents is a discourtesy because it implies that if they don't own the programs that you use, you're not interested in whether or not they can read what you've written. Imagine sending a document in Latin to someone else without knowing whether or not they read Latin! If you send someone a Word document, the only way they can be sure of reading it properly is to go out and buy Microsoft Word. Not everyone can afford to do this, and millions of individuals and organisations use other word processing programs because they prefer them, or because they're cheaper or even free.

Even some people who do own Word don't like to receive Word attachments because they don't want to get viruses.

I hope it's clear that I'm not in any way trying to tell you off, but just to share with you some information that you might not have had an opportunity to consider, and which might be helpful to you.

In case you do choose to reconsider using Word attachments as a method of communication, here's some information about ways of sending emails and attachments that anyone can read.

If what's important in your email is the words, it's always, always best to send it as a plain text email. This won't allow you to use italics or underlining, but will be readable on any email program on any device anywhere in the world. To do this type your message right into a blank email in your email program, and check that it will be sent as a plain text mail (not HTML or RTF) -- the 'Help' function of your email program should explain how you can set it up to send plain text emails. There are accepted conventions for emphasising words or distinguishing titles of books. Emphasise words like this: it's *very* easy. Cite references like this: Joseph Heller, _Catch 22_.

Another way that might work is to compose your message in Word, then select and copy all of it. Open your email program and create a new email, and paste the text into the area where you would type your message. This is not entirely reliable, since different versions of Word work slightly differently, and it might add a whole load of invisible formatting codes to your email (invisible to you, using Word: a lengthy jumble of meaningless characters to someone who tries to read it using something else).

If you have a very long document you want to send as an attachment, or a document which people won't be able to understand by means of the words alone (perhaps you have complicated formulae or tables in it, or you *must* use bold and italic), then there are still ways of doing this without appearing to show contempt for people who don't own Microsoft Word.

To convert the file to HTML using Word is simple. Open the document, click on File, then Save As, and in the Save As Type strip box at the bottom of the box, choose HTML Document or Web Page. Then choose Save. You can then attach the new HTML document instead of your Word document. Note that Word changes in inconsistent ways -- if you see slightly different menu item names, please try them.

To convert to plain text (or RTF, rich text) is almost the same--instead of HTML Document, choose Text Only or Text Document (or RTF or Rich text Format) as the Save As Type.

Your computer may also have a program to convert to the PDF (or Adobe Acrobat) format, which was designed to make sure that when someone else views your document, it looks exactly the same on their computer as it did on yours. Select File => Print. Scroll through available printers and select the pdf converter. Click on the Print button and enter a name for the pdf file when requested, then attach that file to your email. There are some cheap or even free programs to make PDF files: use the search function at or to find them.

I hope I haven't offended you by offering you this advice. It can be a bit alarming to learn that the way we've been communicating has implied disrespect to some of the people who receive our communications. I thought -- I hope I'm right -- that you'd prefer to be told about it.

If you want to explore this issue further, this web page might be a good place to start.

Translations of this page:
[ Deutsch | English ]