Should You Put A Question in the Subject Line of an Email?

by Katie Almeida Spencer on Thu, Jan 16, 2020

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We recently received this comment from a course participant:

“I have noticed a new trend of people using only the subject line to communicate a question and maybe I am old school, but I am not a fan.”

Should you put a question in the subject line of an email?

My initial reaction was complete agreement. Emails are not text messages. They should have a subject line that orients the reader before opening the email and then concise body text that gets the point across effectively and efficiently. So, you shouldn’t simply put a question in the subject line of an email and let that stand for the whole message. (As context, I am technically an older millennial, so have been texting for the past 20 years.)

But this question also got me thinking. Are there circumstances when you can use a question in the subject line? Let’s break this down a bit.

Marketing

“Exclamation points, periods, and question marks are all part of a healthy email marketing strategy, so don’t be afraid to mix up the punctuation you use in your subject lines.” Aweber 

“A recent study by Mailchimp ... found that subject lines phrased as questions performed better than similar subject lines that were phrased as statements.”
Pardot

In the field of Marketing, it seems that using questions is a common strategy to get people to open emails. Indeed, the questions that show up in my inbox (both personal and at work) are far more commonly marketing emails than emails from colleagues or family. I bet you’ve received these too: "Have you seen this?" "Did you forget something in your cart?" 

If I don’t know the sender, I won’t open an email that starts with a question because I know it is a marketing email. But, I may be an anomaly because asking a question engages many readers and gets them to open the email more often than other types of marketing email subject lines.

Intraoffice communication

I went back through my email to find examples of subject lines as questions without body text, and lo and behold, there is one consistently appropriate example. I will often be sent a meeting request that includes a question in the subject line and then an Outlook Calendar invitation in the body of the email. So, while there isn’t any body text written by the sender, the body does contain additional information about the message.

In summary:

  • You shouldn’t use the subject line to convey the entirety of the message.
  • You can (and should) occasionally use questions in subject lines of marketing emails.
  • You can use a question in the subject line of an email IF there is accompanying text in the body (such as an Outlook invitation)

You can find lots more detailed info on the nuances of business email here.

Topics: Business Grammar, Business Email Writing

Katie Almeida Spencer

About the author

Katie Almeida Spencer

Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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