What is an Email Thread?

Email Threads Help Keep Track of Conversations

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An email thread is a group of related email messages comprised of replies or forwards of the original email. The messages are most commonly organized in chronological order, and participants may refer to or re-post snippets from earlier parts of the commentary for clarification. This "threaded view," as it is sometimes called, makes it easier to find related messages.

Email threading is also called "conversation threading" because it pertains not only to email but also internet forums, newsgroups and other arenas in which users share information and ask questions.

A thread of emails on a cell phone works the same way as on an email application on a computer. In most cases, grouping emails into a thread is the default behavior, but you can usually edit your email preferences if you would rather view your messages singly. 

Email Threading on an iOS Device

The Apple iOS's built-in Mail application has several settings controlling email threading. Email threading is turned on by default.

  • Tap Settings, then Mail.
  • Scroll down to the Threading section and make a selection:
    1. Organize by Thread: This setting controls whether threading is used at all in emails. Toggle this off to turn off threading completely. The default is "on" which displays a green icon.
    2. Most Recent Message on Top: This is off by default, but it seems like a good option to turn on. If Mail does not display the most recent message at the top, you'll need to scroll through potentially multiple messages to find the most recent one.
    Note: With iOS 10, Apple turned off this option by default, a fact that has multiple iphone users perplexed.
    3. Complete Threads: This setting groups email messages into threads even if they originate from another mailbox.

    Email Threading on Gmail on an Android Device

    As of Android 5.0 Lollipop, Android devices use Gmail as the default email application, as opposed to the previous Android application called simply Email. In Gmail on Android, email threading (called the conversation view) is turned off by default.

    To control email threading in Gmail on an Android device.

    • Open Gmail and click the three-line icon to the left in the Inbox.
    • Scroll down past all your folders and select Settings.
    • Tick the checkbox next to Conversation View. This is turned off by default.
    • Return to your email to view your threaded email conversations.

    Email Threading on Windows Mobile Devices

    On Windows mobile devices and phones, email threading — also called the conversation view — is turned on by default. To control these settings:

    • Open the Mail app and tap Settings (the gear icon) on the bottom left.
    • Select Options from the context right pane that displays.
    • Use the toggle "Show messages arranged by conversations" to turn this option off or on.

    Unlike iOS and Android, this setting can be controlled for each email account you set up in the Mail app.

    Email Thread Etiquette

    Here are a few pointers when engaging in an email thread, especially if it includes multiple users.

    • Stay on topic, i.e. do not deviate from the original topic.
    • Strip unnecessary images (such as business logos or ads.) from emails that are forwarded, to avoid clogging recipients' inboxes with fluff.
    • Copy someone on a reply or forward if it mentions his name. This point can create a lot of hard feelings and confusion, so consider this carefully. Obviously, if the email thread is of a private nature, you will know if it is appropriate to copy someone. But generally, when you bring someone new into an existing thread, it is because a new issue that involves him has surfaced.
    • Alert existing recipients if you do add a new user to a thread. This is a simple courtesy so that all recipients know immediately who is part of the discussion.
    • Clarify the points you are discussing, especially if they relate to an earlier email buried deep into the thread.
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