Why You Should Never, Ever Send Word Attachments to a Mailing list and Why Any Attachment Can Bite You


Why You Should Never, Ever Send Word Attachments to a Mailing list and Why Any Attachment Can Bite You

With no offense to Microsoft intended

Photo by Microsoft Edge on Unsplash

Microsoft Word probably is the most used Word processor in the world. I haven’t looked at evidence, but I bet nothing else comes close. It comes “free” (sort of) with some computers and most businesses use nothing else.

By the way, I noticed recently that Microsoft offers a heck of a good deal for personal use: Microsoft 365 Family offers multi-platform (desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone) Word, Excel, and Powerpoint for $99 a year. It includes 6 licenses and gives a full terabyte of cloud storage to each license. That’s an extremely good deal if you need those apps or that storage.

Yet many of us do not need Word and probably shouldn’t use it.

Word is a high powered tool with many, many features. You don’t need it to type up a note for the refrigerator or to tuck into a birthday card. Free tools like NotePad, Text Edit and (Mac) Notes come with your operating system even if Word did not. Those tools start up more quickly, consume less RAM, and will seldom do anything unexpected to your work.

And there are some things you should never do with any of those tools.

The address list

I was out for a walk and stopped to let a neighbor back out of her driveway. She noticed me, stopped, and rolled down her car 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. 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 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. It comes with *some* computers. But even if all the neighbors did have Word, she still could have sent them attachments that her neighbors would be unable to open. I started to mention the idea of saving the document as a PDF file to be more compatible, but 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. Email itself is amazingly reliable.


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. Almost all of this applies to any tool you’d use.

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 neighbor’s 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. They *might* have Word, it might even be that they can get it for free, but they might not.

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. The results can also be less than perfect — messed up formatting being not at all unusual.

Preserving the format

The formatting is actually the most common reason the sender used Word to begin with: they wanted it to look nice. 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 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 older Word documents. Microsoft has done a good job fixing all that, but I am frequently surprised by very ancient computers running very old software.

Google Docs

Google Docs is one of the many ways a recipient without Word can read (and create) a Word attachment. Does everyone know that? Of course not, and formatting remains a possible glitch.

How to keep it pretty

I don’t think a list of neighbors’ phone numbers and emails 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. Modern Macs can print anything to PDF and I’m pretty sure there are drivers to do the same in Windows.

Not a perfect solution

There is, however, still a problem. While ALMOST everyone should be able to see a PDF file, some folks with older 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.

Worse, fake Adobe downloads can be dangerous viruses. Most computers today will avoid that problem, but again, that’s *most* and there are those wheezing old buckets people keep because, hey, ‘puters are expensive!

A screenshot

If the document will all fit on the screen, you could take a screenshot (or even a series of screenshots) 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 and Apple both make creating screenshots unnecessarily difficult. Many people I talk to have no idea how to do that.

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 a problem: what you see in Internet Explorer 8 may not be what your neighbor sees in IE 6 or what I will see in Mac Safari or Chrome It will be close, but it won’t be exact. All this also heavily depends upon how old the sending and viewing systems are.

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.

Unless it must be pretty, type it or paste it right into your email. Or do both: use your Word attachment or PDF file, but also type or paste in the text. That would always be useful.

Parts of this come from a similar article I wrote years ago for my business tech site. I’ve updated and expanded it here.

Read me the riot act it in the comments or, if you have subscribed to receive these posts by email, you can respond privately from your mailbox.

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