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Why you shouldn't send Word attachments

© August 2011 Anthony Lawrence

I was our for a walk and stopped to let a neighbor back out of her driveway. She stopped her car when she noticed me and rolled down the window.

"I was going to call you later. I sent out an email to everyone in the neighborhood and it didn't work."

This is not a woman who pesters her neighbors with email daily, but I knew that I had seen email from her in the past, but had not had anything recently, so I was a little surprised.

She continued:

"It's a list of everyone's address, email and phone numbers. Some people got my mail, but they couldn't see the list."

Ahh. An attachment. No doubt a Microsoft Word attachment. I asked her if she had used Word. She didn't know, but her husband, sitting in the passenger seat, affirmed that yes, it was Word.

With them idling their car, halfway out of the driveway and with me out for a walk, I really couldn't get into a long lecture on why her use of Word had undoubtedly been the source of the problem, but I did quickly say that she shouldn't send off Word attachments as not everyone has that software.

Her husband didn't agree with my opinion. "It comes with every new computer", he said.

Well, no, it doesn't. But even if all the neighbors did have Word, she still could have sent them attachments they could not open. I started to mention the idea of saving the document as a PDF file to be more compatible, but of course they didn't understand that. As we both had other things to do, I suggested that she call me later.

Email problems

As I continued my walk, I thought about how email issues are likely the most common mysteries my neighbors have with their computers. Notice that I said "mysteries" and not "problems". That's because most email issues are from misunderstanding and confusion, not necessarily any real problem. A virus infection is a problem. A dead hard drive is also a problem, but email is usually simple confusion or lack of knowledge.


Attachments, whether pictures or documents, are often a source of difficulty. You can have problems sending, receiving, and being able to see what someone sent. This can be because of size, email policies at the sending or receiving end, software incompatibilities and just plain broken software. I'll try to cover all of this, but let's start with Microsoft Word because it is fresh in my mind.

Microsoft Word

There are so many reasons NOT to send Microsoft Word attachments. First up is the fact that not everyone you send to may own it. That sometimes surprises people like my neighbors husband, but although many computer sales do bundle in Microsoft Word, not all do. Moreover, as people start to move away from Microsoft in general, it's becoming far less unusual to find people who don't even own a Microsoft system at all - they may use Apple, Linux or even an Android or iPad tablet.

It is true that there are ways to open Microsoft Word attachments on other computers, but not all users are aware of those methods and sometimes it's a bit clumsy to do it and the results can be less than perfect - messed up formatting being very likely.

Preserving the format

The formatting is actually the most common reason the sender used Word to begin with. Oh, sometimes it's just ignorance: I have met people who never realized that they could have just typed their message into email rather than creating a Word document to attach. Those people are unusual, though: most Word attachments are used because the sender wanted to control the formatting - to make it "pretty".

If you send me that "pretty" Word document, I have some choices. I use a Mac, and I actually do have a fairly recent version of Microsoft Word installed, so I might be able to see what you sent.

Why did I say "might"? I say that because YOUR version of Microsoft Word might be newer than mine and, if it is, it's possible that I will not be able to use my older version with your newer document. That's possibly what happened with the attachment my neighbor sent - I suspect that she recently bought a new computer and probably got a brand new version of Microsoft Word with it.

There are ways around the "new version" issue. The sender can do a "Save As.." and choose an older version of Word. That will allow recipients with older software to use the attachment, though you should understand that this may change the formatting at the same time - your neighbor may not see the document as you see it.

I won't use Microsoft Word on my Mac unless I absolutely have to. It's slow to fire up and sucks up a lot of memory, so I'll usually try an alternative method like Google Docs or Open Office. Again, though, I probably will not see the formatting as the sender intended.

I may also see more than the sender intended. Many Word documents can contain things the author intended to delete. That could be embarrassing or could simply interfere with the intended viewing, but far worse things can also be embedded in Word documents.

How to keep it pretty

I don't think a list of neighbors phone numbers and emails really needs to be "pretty", but if it truly must be, there are ways to do this. One is what I mentioned above - use PDF. That is an option in Word under "Save As.." and every recipient should see your creation exactly as you intended it to be seen.

There is, however, still a problem. While ALMOST everyone should be able to see a PDF file, some folks with older Microsoft computers may not be able to without downloading free "Acrobat Reader" software from Adobe. While the download is easy and free, some people get confused or are just unwilling to do that, so while PDF is a better option than Word, it is not perfect. If you intended the recipients to be able to edit the document to make changes, they'll run into more difficulties, so that may be another reason not to use PDF.

If the document will all fit on the screen, you could take a screen shot (or even a series of screen shots) and attach it as a picture. While everyone should be able to see that without difficulty, that would be even more difficult to change for updates.

There is also the fact that Microsoft makes creating screen shots unnecessarily difficult.

An HTML document is yet another option. Again, Word can "Save As.." HTML, and everyone will be able to see it without additional software. They can also load it into almost any other Word processor to edit it, so that's not an issue. However, formatting can be: what you see in Internet Explorer 8 may not be what your neighbor sees in IE 6 or what I will see in Chrome or Firefox. It will be close, but it won't be exact.

So the answer is..

There is no answer. There is nothing you can do that will satisfy all desires all the time.

Certainly sending a Word attachment is the worst possible choice. There are political arguments to be made also, but I won't get into that here. What you need to understand is that a Word attachment, even if you "Save As.." to an older version, may cause difficulties for your neighbors. If that isn't enough to convince you not to do this, some of your neighbors may not see what you wanted them to see and some might not see it at all - it's really that simple.

In the next part, I'll cover some more attachment issues and some other common email problems.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Tue Aug 30 19:34:35 2011: 9752   TonyLawrence


Somebody mentioned using Google Docs to create and share the document.

That's a great option too, but it requires a Google account signup, which some paranoid people just will not do.

As I said, there is no completely satisfactory method if you don't want plain text.

Tue Aug 30 20:54:40 2011: 9754   ed


There is an alternative, LaTeX. I like this format since it's basically plain text, but you can simply generate a .ps file and direct that to lpr with page formatting options to print two pages per side.

Since it's plain text, it makes versioning (cvs, svn etc) simple once there is more than one person editing the document.

As for MS Office applications generally, I can't stand them, especially Outlook and I feel sorry for anyone who is currently a student and being advised to use it for big documents. If only I knew about LaTeX when I was a student!

Tue Aug 30 22:45:55 2011: 9755   TonyLawrence


You must be kidding.. send Latex to your neighbors?? That's worse than Word!


Wed Aug 31 14:27:57 2011: 9758   BigDumbDinosaur


There are so many reasons NOT to send Microsoft Word attachments.

Not the least of which is if you send E-mail with a Word attachment (or any other MS Office file type) to BCS Technology, our mail server will strip the attachment from the message and send it to the bit-bucket. I don't want any of that virus-prone crap anywhere near my office system. I've got all of our vendors trained to not send me quotes, etc., in Word, Excel, etc. All of our clients are on Thunderbird or similar and know to not send MS Office files. Too bad I can't get other correspondents to get away from the Microsoft crud.


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