Apostrophe in the Email Address?

Here is a question for my IT/Sysadmin readers out there. When you get a user who has an apostrophe, or an unusual character in their last name, how do you go about setting up his or her email address? Do you:

  1. Drop the apostrophe and special characters and/or replace them with the closest ASCII equivalent to keep it easy
  2. Keep the special characters and force everyone in the world to struggle as they try to email that user

Apparently IT people at a certain bank that I will not name (but let me just say it’s initials are HSBC) think that option #2 is a good idea. Why? Let’s think about a hypothetical scenario in which, for example and apostrophe in the email could be a problem. Again, this is just a make believe situation that has never actually happened yesterday at my company.

So, hypothetically speaking a made up user JC calls me up yesterday and tells me that she can’t send email to one Frogurt D’mangello who works at the said bank. Why can’t she do it? Because Mr. Frogurt’s email looks like this:

frogurt.d’mangello@we.like.subdomains.in.our.emails.hsbc.com

On the surface this is ok – after all apostrophes are allowed to be part of the email address according to the RFC, right? I know this, you know this but apparently whoever hacked together SquirrelMail didn’t. So when you try to send an email to Mr. Frogurt via this popular and widely used webmail application his address becomes:

frogurt.d\’mangello@we.like.subdomains.in.our.emails.hsbc.com

Yes, someone is running mysql_escape_string method on all input fields, even those which legally are allowed to contain MySQL unfriendly characters. I should be mad at SquirrelMail but you know what – they are doing the right thing. I sanitize all my input fields too when I work on a web application. Better be safe than sorry. Naturally, they could use strip_slashes just before actually sending the email but what are you going to do. It’s a bug (which might have been already patched in then newest release), but I can’t fix it because I do not maintain the SquirelMails server. :(

But the situation is now a conundrum because JC is behind some draconian firewall which blocks all outgoing ports save for port 80 meaning she can’t use Outlook to send emails. She also can’t use SquirrelMail due to this peculiar bug. So how do they communicate?

This could have been easily avoided if certain IT department simply had a policy which said “only dots and alphanumeric ASCII characters in usernames”. And not just because certain email packages may not support all the different addressing formats as specified in the RFC. It’s also because everyone thinks they know how to validate emails but they don’t. Half the validation scripts out there is just plain wrong. You actually need a 6.4K regular expression to cover all the different addressing schemes covered by the RFC. So if Mr. Frogurt wants to subscribe to some mailing list, or sign into some popular web application he might at one point be told his email is not valid. Remove the apostrophe, and even the most broken email validator will let it through.

Not to mention the hassle of emphasizing the apostrophe every time he tries to dictate his email address to someone over the phone. So really, other than blindly following the RFC, what other benefits are there of putting that non alphanumeric character in his email? Would Mr. Frogurt really mind if his email started with frogurt.dmangello? Would it really make his life a living hell, or would it actually spare him some potential hassles, misunderstandings and unnecessary tech support calls?

I too have a non-standar letter in my name. If I wanted, I could set up my email as: Łukasz@example.com. It would be legal under RFC but I would probably spend the rest of my days explaining to people what that “weird L” is and how to get it in Outlook. Oh, and no iPhone user would probably ever email me because these poor schmucks can’t copy and paste yet. ;P

I say stick to alphanumeric ASCII and dots. Anything more is just asking for trouble.

[tags]email, apostrophe in email, rfc, rant[/tags]

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21 Responses to Apostrophe in the Email Address?

  1. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I have that issue, unfortunately. My last name starts with “O’L”…fun, eh. I am on a contract with the federal government, and the department set up an email address with the apostrophe! The problem is, some websites don’t accept that (when signing up for webcasts, newsletters, etc.) It’s a royal pain, and I would be fine if they left it as “OL”.

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  2. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    We had a problem like that. Salesforce.com (and later SugarCRM) doesn’t like email addresses with slashes in them. We had some clients on lotus notes which had lots of slashes in them. We ended up having to put the email addresses in the comments section. Stupid.

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  3. Fr3d UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I didn’t know an apostrophe was even allowed in email addresses…

    However, as a sysadmin, I (would) always omit them, and use basic a-z and 0-9 characters, underscores and periods only. Keeps things easier for all types of software/websites :)

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Oh wow – see, two other real world examples of where this has been a problem. It’s more widespread tan I thought.

    @Fred – yes, apostrophe is legal. So is %, $, #, +, \ and etc.. Weird, but true. See here.

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  5. matthias GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    As a Sysadmin I always try to keep things simple. This means: only a-z, 0-9, “-“, “_” and “.” are allowed characters in email adresses.
    This helps me to not run in any problems with uncommon filenames of the mailboxes, problems with scripts that are using email adresses or problems with different locales and charsets on different operating systems.

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  6. Miloš UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    At MSU that’s handled properly, but we still have a subdomain in the e-mail address (mail.domain.edu)…but there are good news, before this semester is over that should go as well so that we can finally have our lastnamefirstnitial @domain.edu :)

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  7. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    after all apostrophe’s are allowed

    gah!

    If only I could link images here. I wouldn’t say anything normally, but the subject of the article is apostrophes, after all…

    For me, I believe in manifesto of the Deny Any And All Punctuation That Is Not A Dot Or Horizontal And Thin In Email Addresses Party (the DAaAPTiNaDoHaTiEA Party), who basically agree with Fr3d up there. No way am I ever allowing an email address like naïf@vacri.mil as it just causes problems.

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  8. Shannon ISRAEL Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Agreed-but then again if I had Apostrophe in my name it would bother me that I have to drop it for the email address. I would probably prefer to make everyone’s life easier and drop it but still it seems unfair.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Miloš – the subdomain doesn’t bother me that much – they just make the email longer and more unwieldy. However sometimes there are good reasons for them. For example rage, multinational companies use country specific sub domains to differentiate national branches (ie. @us.companyname.com, @jp.companyname.com and etc..).

    In MSU’s case they just seem unnecessary. Glad to hear they will be going away

    @vacri – fixd ;)

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  10. Airmail UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    In a perfect world the programmers of mail systems would all follow the syntax and rules in the RFCs and all email systems would interoperate. As you can see it is not a perfect world so don’t knock those of us who support systems that are RFC compliant.

    Just wait till the 8-bit foreign language domains are in use. Then you will see who is compliant and who is not.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Airmail – I’m not knocking you for supporting the RFC. I’m thrilled your mail system allows for this. I completely agree that everyone should shape up and start implementing email systems that are compliant with the RFC.

    But we don’t live in a perfect world, and judging from the examples above having apostrophe in the email address does create issues at times. :) I’m not happy about it either.

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  12. MERLiiN AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Yes, the 8-bit foreign language domains compliance is very handy to have when your end users lack the keyboard space for “squiggles”. I’m sure your RFC compliant MTA will be very handy when your boss gives you THAT 5am call because he cannot type out the email address for Mr.Miyagi and he needs to send that sucker right NOW! I am sure you can do the the correct x– translation in your sleep.

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  13. Jason NEW ZEALAND Opera Windows says:

    I just came across an apostrophe based email address – my first after about 13 or 14 years and your piece above was helpful.

    On balance it seems like most admins disallow apostrophes this as it is far from universal in application and what most people need is an email address that will work on the maximum number of systems.

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  14. I have yet to see e-mail software — client, server, anything — that properly parses to the RFCs. I have never seen anyone do it right, not even Google. If someone can show me one that does, please inform me. The only correct implementation I am aware of is the Perl library that you linked to, but no one uses it.

    And addresses can be pretty hairy too. This is a valid address according to the RFCs,

    “Doe, John@>Home”@hotmail.com

    But no one will even try to take it. Notice, this blog software also didn’t quite parse it correctly when trying to form the mailto href, though it did pretty well.

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  15. Rich UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Not only is the apostrophe allowed but it’s part of someone’s name. It’s only properly respectful that it should be allowed. If software can’t handle it, it should be fixed.

    That said, we ban it here. Just makes things work easier :)

    With the Squirrelmail above, are you sure you don’t just need to disable GPC_MAGIC_QUOTES? That’ll fsck you up all the time.

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  16. O'Connor CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Shannon:

    Screw that. I *HAVE* an apostrophe in my last name, and I’m a developer. I block apostrophes from emails every chance I get. It is more hassle than it is worth.

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  17. D'Arcy CANADA Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Funny story… I have an ‘ in my name, and I used to work at HSBC. My current work uses the ‘ in my email address. I too am a developer, and I happen to like the ‘ in my name. This is pretty simple, there is a standard, if programmers are too lazy to develop to the standard then they can screw off. If someone cannot contact me, or if I cannot contact them, because they are using poorly written software then they should take the time to find something that is better written (and complain). The only way things like this get fixed is if people raise the issue.

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  18. Mike O\'Connor UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    This is crap. My name is O’Connor and it is now 2012 and these problems still persist. I refuse to sign up and/or do business with any site that will not allow my name. Everyone with an apostrophe in their name stand up for yourself an make the computer programmers change this bug. Refuse to deal with any site that won’t allow it and fight for yourself.

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  19. OBoyle AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’ve been using OBoyle as my name since the 1980’s wherever I think computers might be involved. Got to work a year ago at a new employer. It keeps the notion of the O being a prefix by capitalising the B, but avoids the apostrophe’s technical issues. Found out I couldn’t sign up for internal mailing lists (run using a third party list server) because my email address had been created with the apostrophe. Spent a few days getting it changed. No problems since. Of course, as a result, my name now has 2 legal spellings. Even banks know me without the apostrophe. Passport and birth certificate use the apostrophe, though.

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  20. duane UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It is not difficult to use an email alias.

    That means you can have
    frogurt.d’mangello@we.like.subdomains.in.our.emails.hsbc.com
    but you will deliver to
    frogurt.dmangello@we.like.subdomains.in.our.emails.hsbc.com.

    So if you hit a website that doesn’t like the apostrophe, you are free to omit it with no issue.

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  21. Myles UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ vacri:

    You didn’t mention this one “say it’s initial” there shouldn’t have been an ‘ in that! it’s is a concatenation of IT IS! You meant the possessive ITS.
    Your comments section also doesn’t allow ‘ in email addresses. i love irony.

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