Not-So-Stupid Mail Tricks

Handy tips for Mail, the basic mail program. It's more sophisticated than you may think!

Mail is a useful program that can do most stuff that other fancier mailers do, if you take the time to figure out how. This "not-so-stupid mail tricks" www page details this underappreciated mail program.

Still to-do:
FAQ, command-line options, .mailrc, & options.

Tilde Commands

Some handy commands to use in mail, while inputting your letter. The ~ commands have to be entered on the first column of a new line.

Edit the letter you're typing with your VISUAL editor. You cannot use the ~ commands while in the Visual Editor.
Edit the letter with basic EDITOR editor. You cannot use the ~ commands while in the Basic Editor.
~r filename
Import text file filename into your letter. Can also use ~< filename.
~w filename
Write the letter you're typing out to text file filename. Note that ~> filename will not work.
Quote the letter you are replying to. You probably want to put the following line in your .mailrc file:
set indentprefix="> "
Otherwise, there will be a tab in front of each quoted line, instead of a > ... You will want to edit your letter (~e or ~v) to remove unnecessary lines and put your replies in context.
Optionally, you can follow the ~m with a message number to quote a letter other than the one you're replying to.
Similar to ~m, but quote a letter without prefixing each line. Useful for forwarding messages. After reading the message you want to forward, type
mail username
at the & prompt. Mail will ask for a subject, then put you into input mode. If you wish, indicate that a forwarded message follows, then type the ~f command.
Optionally, you can follow the ~f with a message number to quote a letter other than the current one.
~c username
Send a carbon-copy (cc) to user username when mailing this letter.
~b username
Send a "blind carbon-copy" to username - like a cc, but doesn't show in headers. Usually used to send an archival copy to onesself.
List what you have written in your letter so far.
Help with tilde commands.
End letter and send. Can also use ^D (control-D).
Abort letter and do not send. Can also use ^C^C.


The EDITOR and VISUAL environment variables tell mail which editor to use when editing your letter. Traditionally, in the old days of Unix, VISUAL was a full-screen editor such as Vi, and EDITOR was a plain line-editor such as Ex. Unless you're using a simple TTY, you probably won't have much use for a line-mode-editor - you can set both variables to the same value, or use different editors for different purposes (e.g. VISUAL for a simple editor such as Pico and EDITOR for a more powerful editor like Emacs).

To set the variables in the csh or tcsh shells, put something like the following in your .login file:
setenv EDITOR ce
setenv VISUAL pico

Substituting your preferred editor for ce and pico, if you wish.

If you're using the sh or or bash/zsh shell, put the following lines in your .profile file:
export EDITOR
export VISUAL

Again, substituting your preferred editor for ce and pico.

Note that other Unix programs such as newsreaders Tin, Nn, and Trn use the VISUAL variable as their default editor.