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Why can't people read the attachments I send them?

Posted 16 October 2001

One of the most useful functions of e-mail is the ability to attach documents and pictures. It takes only a few minutes to attach and send a file, compared to hours or days to send it by post or courier. But attachments have their problems.

For someone to view an attachment they must have software that can read it. If you’re sending the attachment to a number of people, or to someone who may not have the same software, you should send attachments in a generic format. These formats vary with the type of data you want to send.

Generic File Formats

Type of attachment

File format


Written Text, no formatting


All computers can read text documents, but the file will lose all formatting. This is the best way to send documents if you don’t know what the recipient uses for a word processor.



Used for pictures. Most computers can read .jpg files with their Web browsers.

Written text with formatting

Rich text format

Most word processing programs can read .rtf documents. You will retain tab stops, bold and italics, but you will lose advanced features like tables, hyperlinks and clip art.

Tables and basic databases

Comma or tab-delimited

If you need to transmit spreadsheet or database information, a comma-delimited text file is best. You will lose all advanced features from the database or spreadsheet, but the basic table will be transmitted.

Complex formatted documents


A computer that receives e-mail will almost certainly be able to read Web pages. Depending upon the program you use to save the program, most of the formatting features will be preserved. Editing the document may be a problem.

By sending an attachment in a generic format you increase the likelihood that those receiving it will be able to read it. To save in a generic format open the file, select file, save as and in the "save file as type" box choose the file type you want to save as. You can then attach the saved file to an e-mail.

Remember there are limitations to the generic file types. There may be a loss of features or of quality. If you can, agree with the people you are sending the file to on what format to use. This makes life much easier and that is what e-mail is really about.

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