The anatomy of the Mail window

There are many ways to communicate with others using the tools Apple provides—text, voice and video chats, and posts to social networking sites. But the one most frequently used by many of us is email. You create an account, compose a message, slap on an attachment if you like, add a recipient and subject heading, and send.

Some time ago, I showed you how to set up email accounts on your Mac through Mountain Lion’s Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. With this lesson we begin exploring the application you’ll use to create, send, and receive email messages—Apple’s Mail.

By default the Mail window is a fairly straightforward affair. Along the top you see the toolbar as well as a Search field. Just below the toolbar are heading for mailboxes you’ll routinely access. If you click the Show button in this area, a Mailboxes pane appears. Below this area is a list of messages contained within the selected mailbox. And to the right is the message area, which takes up the bulk of the window. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of the Mail window.

What's where in the Mail window.

The toolbar

Like toolbars found in Finder windows, you can edit this to include just those items you like. By default, however, you’ll spy these tools:

Get New Mail (Shift-Command-N): Click the button that bears an envelope icon and Mail will retrieve any new messages for your online accounts.

Wait, online accounts? Yes. It’s possible to choose an email account—your iCloud account, for example—and take it offline so that it won’t send or receive messages until you choose to bring it online. (You can change an account’s online status by choosing Mailbox > Online Status and then selecting an account name from the submenu that appears.) We’ll discuss why you might want to take an account offline in another column. For the time being, just know that if an account’s offline, clicking the Get New Mail button will retrieve no messages.

New Message (Command-N): The button with the pencil intersecting a square is Apple’s universal “write something” icon. Click it and a New Message window appears where you can compose a new email message. We’ll look at doing that at another time as well.

Delete (Delete key—known to old-timers as the Backspace key): Unless you’re a helpless packrat, you’re going to want to delete messages that you no longer need. This button is the means for doing that. Note, however, that deleted email isn’t immediately vaporized from your Mac. Rather, it’s placed in the Trash mailbox, from where you can retrieve your messages if you later decide that you really do want to earn $250 million in just three easy days. (When we look at Mail’s preferences you’ll learn just when these messages are deleted for good.)

Mark as Junk Mail (Shift-Command-J): That thumbs-down button wasn’t designed with “Wow, Joe is really a jerk, I can’t believe he sent this message!” in mind. Instead, it’s used specifically to mark selected messages as spam or junk mail. If you receive offers for questionable nostrums or hot money-making schemes, select them and click this button. This helps train Mail’s junk-mail filters so that future messages that contain this content are marked as spam.

Messages that are deemed to be spam appear in the messages list in a brownish-orange color. If you believe that such a message has been mismarked, just select it and you’ll see that the thumbs down icon changes to thumbs up, which is the Mark As Not Junk Mail symbol. Click that button and the message will be deemed good and lose its junky color.

Reply (Command-R): To reply to a message you’ve received, just select it and click the Reply button. A message window appears with a subject heading that begins with “Re:” and is then followed by the original message’s subject line—Re: Danny’s Unusual Habits, for example. It’s automatically addressed to the sender and contains all the text from the original message, bracketed on the left with a blue quote line (which indicates that this is the text from the original message). The cursor appears above the quoted text, ready for you to type.

Reply All (Shift-Command-R): Messages are often sent to multiple people. If you’d like to reply to everyone the original message was sent to, click the button with the two overlapping left-pointing arrows.

Normally I don’t introduce issues of etiquette into Mac 101, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Please, please, please, use Reply All judiciously. If the boss sends around a message to the staff proposing a Suck-Up Of The Year award, reply just to your office overlord. No one wants to wade through 258 “Great idea, Boss!” messages sent to everyone in your organization.

Forward (Shift-Command-F): There will be times when you receive messages so fascinating (or scandalous) that you’ll want to share them with others. That’s the point of the right-pointing-arrow Forward button. Similar to the Reply and Reply All buttons, clicking Forward creates a new message that contains the quoted text of the original message. However, in this case the subject heading begins with “Fwd:” and the To field is left blank.

Oh, very well, more etiquette. It’s kind of a rotten thing to forward messages intended for your eyes only if that forwarding would embarrass the original sender.

Make a message stand out by applying a flag.

Flag: With Mountain Lion’s Mail it’s possible to flag messages with particular colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, or gray. You might flag a message to identify it as important. Or you could flag related messages—yellow for all your coworkers who believe the yearly Suck-Up award is a waste of time, for instance. After setting a flag you can later choose to clear it by selecting Clear Flag from this menu.

If you find this small collection of tools not nearly complete enough, simply Control-click (right-click) the toolbar and choose Customize Toolbar from the resulting menu. A tools sheet will appear from which you can drag additional icons to the toolbar.

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