MAIL(1) BSD General Commands Manual MAIL(1)NAME
mail, Mail, mailx — send and receive mail
mail [-dEiInv] [-s subject] [-c cc-addr] [-b bcc-addr] [-F] to-addr ...
mail [-dEHiInNv] [-F] -f [name]
mail [-dEHiInNv] [-F] [-u user]
mail [-d] -e [-f name]
The mail utility is an intelligent mail processing system, which has a
command syntax reminiscent of ed(1) with lines replaced by messages.
The following options are available:
-v Verbose mode. The details of delivery are displayed on the
-d Debugging mode. See the debug mail option for details.
-e Test for the presence of mail in the (by default, system) mail‐
box. An exit status of 0 is returned if it has mail; otherwise,
an exit status of 1 is returned.
-H Write a header summary only, then exit.
-E Do not send messages with an empty body. This is useful for pip‐
ing errors from cron(8) scripts.
-i Ignore tty interrupt signals. This is particularly useful when
using mail on noisy phone lines.
-I Force mail to run in interactive mode even when input is not a
terminal. In particular, the ‘~’ special character when sending
mail is only active in interactive mode.
-n Inhibit reading the system-wide mail.rc files upon startup.
-N Inhibit the initial display of message headers when reading mail
or editing a mail folder.
Specify subject on command line. (Only the first argument after
the -s flag is used as a subject; be careful to quote subjects
Send carbon copies to cc-addr list of users. The cc-addr argu‐
ment should be a comma-separated list of names.
Send blind carbon copies to bcc-addr list of users. The bcc-addr
argument should be a comma-separated list of names.
Read in the contents of your mbox (or the specified file) for
processing; when you quit, mail writes undeleted messages back to
-F Record the message in a file named after the first recipient.
The name is the login-name portion of the address found first on
the “To:” line in the mail header. Overrides the record vari‐
able, if set.
-u Is equivalent to:
mail -f /var/mail/user
At startup time mail will execute commands in the system command files
/usr/share/misc/mail.rc, /usr/local/etc/mail.rc and /etc/mail.rc in
order, unless explicitly told not to by the use of the -n option. Next,
the commands in the user's personal command file ~/.mailrc are executed.
The mail utility then examines its command line options to determine
whether a new message is to be sent, or whether an existing mailbox is to
To send a message to one or more people, mail can be invoked with argu‐
ments which are the names of people to whom the mail will be sent. You
are then expected to type in your message, followed by a ⟨control-D⟩ at
the beginning of a line. The section below Replying To or Originating
Mail, describes some features of mail available to help you compose your
In normal usage mail is given no arguments and checks your mail out of
the post office, then prints out a one line header of each message found.
The current message is initially the first message (numbered 1) and can
be printed using the print command (which can be abbreviated p). You can
move among the messages much as you move between lines in ed(1), with the
commands + and - moving backwards and forwards, and simple numbers.
Disposing of Mail
After examining a message you can delete (d) the message or reply (r) to
it. Deletion causes the mail program to forget about the message. This
is not irreversible; the message can be undeleted (u) by giving its num‐
ber, or the mail session can be aborted by giving the exit (x) command.
Deleted messages will, however, usually disappear never to be seen again.
Commands such as print and delete can be given a list of message numbers
as arguments to apply to a number of messages at once. Thus “delete 1 2”
deletes messages 1 and 2, while “delete 1-5” deletes messages 1 through
5. The special name ‘*’ addresses all messages, and ‘$’ addresses the
last message; thus the command top which prints the first few lines of a
message could be used in “top *” to print the first few lines of all mes‐
Replying To or Originating Mail
You can use the reply command to set up a response to a message, sending
it back to the person who it was from. Text you then type in, up to an
end-of-file, defines the contents of the message. While you are compos‐
ing a message, mail treats lines beginning with the character ‘~’ spe‐
cially. For instance, typing ~m (alone on a line) will place a copy of
the current message into the response right shifting it by a tabstop (see
indentprefix variable, below). Other escapes will set up subject fields,
add and delete recipients to the message and allow you to escape to an
editor to revise the message or to a shell to run some commands. (These
options are given in the summary below.)
Ending a Mail Processing Session
You can end a mail session with the quit (q) command. Messages which
have been examined go to your mbox file unless they have been deleted in
which case they are discarded. Unexamined messages go back to the post
office. (See the -f option above).
Personal and System Wide Distribution Lists
It is also possible to create a personal distribution lists so that, for
instance, you can send mail to “cohorts” and have it go to a group of
people. Such lists can be defined by placing a line like
alias cohorts bill ozalp jkf mark kridle@ucbcory
in the file .mailrc in your home directory. The current list of such
aliases can be displayed with the alias command in mail. System wide
distribution lists can be created by editing /etc/mail/aliases, see
aliases(5) and sendmail(8); these are kept in a different syntax. In
mail you send, personal aliases will be expanded in mail sent to others
so that they will be able to reply to the recipients. System wide
aliases are not expanded when the mail is sent, but any reply returned to
the machine will have the system wide alias expanded as all mail goes
Network Mail (ARPA, UUCP, Berknet)
See mailaddr(7) for a description of network addresses.
The mail utility has a number of options which can be set in the .mailrc
file to alter its behavior; thus “set askcc” enables the askcc feature.
(These options are summarized below.)
(Adapted from the Mail Reference Manual.)
Each command is typed on a line by itself, and may take arguments follow‐
ing the command word. The command need not be typed in its entirety —
the first command which matches the typed prefix is used. For commands
which take message lists as arguments, if no message list is given, then
the next message forward which satisfies the command's requirements is
used. If there are no messages forward of the current message, the
search proceeds backwards, and if there are no good messages at all, mail
types “No applicable messages” and aborts the command.
- Print out the preceding message. If given a numeric argument n,
goes to the n'th previous message and prints it.
# ignore the remainder of the line as a comment.
? Prints a brief summary of commands.
! Executes the shell (see sh(1) and csh(1)) command which follows.
Print (P) Like print but also prints out ignored header fields. See
also print, ignore and retain.
Reply (R) Reply to originator. Does not reply to other recipients of
the original message.
Type (T) Identical to the Print command.
alias (a) With no arguments, prints out all currently-defined aliases.
With one argument, prints out that alias. With more than one
argument, creates a new alias or changes an old one.
(alt) The alternates command is useful if you have accounts on
several machines. It can be used to inform mail that the listed
addresses are really you. When you reply to messages, mail will
not send a copy of the message to any of the addresses listed on
the alternates list. If the alternates command is given with no
argument, the current set of alternative names is displayed.
chdir (c) Changes the user's working directory to that specified, if
given. If no directory is given, then changes to the user's
copy (co) The copy command does the same thing that save does, except
that it does not mark the messages it is used on for deletion
when you quit.
delete (d) Takes a list of messages as argument and marks them all as
deleted. Deleted messages will not be saved in mbox, nor will
they be available for most other commands.
dp (also dt) Deletes the current message and prints the next mes‐
sage. If there is no next message, mail says “at EOF”.
edit (e) Takes a list of messages and points the text editor at each
one in turn. On return from the editor, the message is read back
exit (ex or x) Effects an immediate return to the shell without modi‐
fying the user's system mailbox, his mbox file, or his edit file
file (fi) The same as folder.
List the names of the folders in your folder directory.
folder (fo) The folder command switches to a new mail file or folder.
With no arguments, it tells you which file you are currently
reading. If you give it an argument, it will write out changes
(such as deletions) you have made in the current file and read in
the new file. Some special conventions are recognized for the
name. ‘#’ means the previous file, ‘%’ means your system mail‐
box, “%user” means user's system mailbox, ‘&’ means your mbox
file, and “+folder” means a file in your folder directory.
from (f) Takes a list of messages and prints their message headers.
(h) Lists the current range of headers, which is an 18-message
group. If a ‘+’ argument is given, then the next 18-message
group is printed, and if a ‘-’ argument is given, the previous
18-message group is printed.
help A synonym for ?.
hold (ho, also preserve) Takes a message list and marks each message
therein to be saved in the user's system mailbox instead of in
mbox. Does not override the delete command.
ignore Add the list of header fields named to the ignored list. Header
fields in the ignore list are not printed on your terminal when
you print a message. This command is very handy for suppression
of certain machine-generated header fields. The Type and Print
commands can be used to print a message in its entirety, includ‐
ing ignored fields. If ignore is executed with no arguments, it
lists the current set of ignored fields.
inc Incorporate any new messages that have arrived while mail is
being read. The new messages are added to the end of the message
list, and the current message is reset to be the first new mail
message. This does not renumber the existing message list, nor
does it cause any changes made so far to be saved.
mail (m) Takes as argument login names and distribution group names
and sends mail to those people.
mbox Indicate that a list of messages be sent to mbox in your home
directory when you quit. This is the default action for messages
if you do not have the hold option set.
more (mo) Takes a list of messages and invokes the pager on that list.
next (n, like + or CR) Goes to the next message in sequence and types
it. With an argument list, types the next matching message.
(pre) A synonym for hold.
print (p) Takes a message list and types out each message on the user's
quit (q) Terminates the session, saving all undeleted, unsaved mes‐
sages in the user's mbox file in his login directory, preserving
all messages marked with hold or preserve or never referenced in
his system mailbox, and removing all other messages from his sys‐
tem mailbox. If new mail has arrived during the session, the
message “You have new mail” is given. If given while editing a
mailbox file with the -f flag, then the edit file is rewritten.
A return to the shell is effected, unless the rewrite of edit
file fails, in which case the user can escape with the exit com‐
reply (r) Takes a message list and sends mail to the sender and all
recipients of the specified message. The default message must
not be deleted.
A synonym for reply.
retain Add the list of header fields named to the retained list. Only
the header fields in the retained list are shown on your terminal
when you print a message. All other header fields are sup‐
pressed. The type and print commands can be used to print a mes‐
sage in its entirety. If retain is executed with no arguments,
it lists the current set of retained fields.
save (s) Takes a message list and a filename and appends each message
in turn to the end of the file. The filename in quotes, followed
by the line count and character count is echoed on the user's
set (se) With no arguments, prints all variable values. Otherwise,
sets option. Arguments are of the form option=value (no space
before or after ‘=’) or option. Quotation marks may be placed
around any part of the assignment statement to quote blanks or
tabs, i.e. “set indentprefix="->"”
Saveignore is to save what ignore is to print and type. Header
fields thus marked are filtered out when saving a message by save
or when automatically saving to mbox.
Saveretain is to save what retain is to print and type. Header
fields thus marked are the only ones saved with a message when
saving by save or when automatically saving to mbox. Saveretain
shell (sh) Invokes an interactive version of the shell.
size Takes a message list and prints out the size in characters of
source The source command reads commands from a file.
top Takes a message list and prints the top few lines of each. The
number of lines printed is controlled by the variable toplines
and defaults to 5.
type (t) A synonym for print.
Takes a list of names defined by alias commands and discards the
remembered groups of users. The group names no longer have any
(u) Takes a message list and marks each message as not being
unread (U) Takes a message list and marks each message as not having
unset Takes a list of option names and discards their remembered val‐
ues; the inverse of set.
visual (v) Takes a message list and invokes the display editor on each
write (w) Similar to save, except that only the message body (without
the header) is saved. Extremely useful for such tasks as sending
and receiving source program text over the message system.
xit (x) A synonym for exit.
z The mail utility presents message headers in windowfuls as
described under the headers command. You can move mail's atten‐
tion forward to the next window with the z command. Also, you
can move to the previous window by using z-.
Here is a summary of the tilde escapes, which are used when composing
messages to perform special functions. Tilde escapes are only recognized
at the beginning of lines. The name “tilde escape” is somewhat of a mis‐
nomer since the actual escape character can be set by the option escape.
~a Inserts the autograph string from the sign= option into the mes‐
~A Inserts the autograph string from the Sign= option into the mes‐
~b name ...
Add the given names to the list of carbon copy recipients but do
not make the names visible in the Cc: line (“blind” carbon copy).
~c name ...
Add the given names to the list of carbon copy recipients.
~d Read the file dead.letter from your home directory into the mes‐
~e Invoke the text editor on the message collected so far. After
the editing session is finished, you may continue appending text
to the message.
Read the named messages into the message being sent. If no mes‐
sages are specified, read in the current message. Message head‐
ers currently being ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are
Identical to ~f, except all message headers are included.
~h Edit the message header fields by typing each one in turn and
allowing the user to append text to the end or modify the field
by using the current terminal erase and kill characters.
Inserts the value of the named option into the text of the mes‐
Read the named messages into the message being sent, indented by
a tab or by the value of indentprefix. If no messages are speci‐
fied, read the current message. Message headers currently being
ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are not included.
Identical to ~m, except all message headers are included.
~p Print out the message collected so far, prefaced by the message
~q Abort the message being sent, copying the message to dead.letter
in your home directory if save is set.
~r filename, ~r !command
~< filename, ~< !command
Read the named file into the message. If the argument begins
with a ‘!’, the rest of the string is taken as an arbitrary sys‐
tem command and is executed, with the standard output inserted
into the message.
Use string as the Reply-To field.
Cause the named string to become the current subject field.
~t name ...
Add the given names to the direct recipient list.
~v Invoke an alternative editor (defined by the VISUAL environment
variable) on the message collected so far. Usually, the alterna‐
tive editor will be a screen editor. After you quit the editor,
you may resume appending text to the end of your message.
Write the message onto the named file.
~x Exits as with ~q, except the message is not saved in dead.letter.
Execute the indicated shell command, then return to the message.
~| command, ~^ command
Pipe the message through the command as a filter. If the command
gives no output or terminates abnormally, retain the original
text of the message. The command fmt(1) is often used as command
to rejustify the message.
~: mail-command, ~_ mail-command
Execute the given mail command. Not all commands, however, are
~. Simulate end-of-file on input.
~? Print a summary of the available command escapes.
Insert the string of text in the message prefaced by a single
‘~’. If you have changed the escape character, then you should
double that character in order to send it.
Options can be set with the set command and can be disabled with the
unset or set noname commands. Options may be either binary, in which
case it is only significant to see whether they are set or not; or
string, in which case the actual value is of interest. If an option is
not set, mail will look for an environment variable of the same name.
The available options include the following:
append Causes messages saved in mbox to be appended to the end rather
than prepended. This should always be set (preferably in one of
the system-wide mail.rc files). Default is noappend.
Causes mail to prompt you for the subject of each message you
send. If you respond with simply a newline, no subject field
will be sent. Default is asksub.
askbcc Causes you to be prompted for additional blind carbon copy recip‐
ients at the end of each message. Responding with a newline
indicates your satisfaction with the current list. Default is
askcc Causes you to be prompted for additional carbon copy recipients
at the end of each message. Responding with a newline indicates
your satisfaction with the current list. Default is noaskcc.
Causes new mail to be automatically incorporated when it arrives.
Setting this is similar to issuing the inc command at each
prompt, except that the current message is not reset when new
mail arrives. Default is noautoinc.
Causes the delete command to behave like dp; thus, after deleting
a message, the next one will be typed automatically. Default is
crt The valued option crt is used as a threshold to determine how
long a message must be before PAGER is used to read it. If crt
is set without a value, then the height of the terminal screen
stored in the system is used to compute the threshold (see
stty(1)). Default is nocrt.
debug Setting the binary option debug is the same as specifying -d on
the command line and causes mail to output all sorts of informa‐
tion useful for debugging mail. In case mail is invoked in this
mode to send mail, all preparations will be performed and
reported about, but the mail will not be actually sent. Default
dot The binary option dot causes mail to interpret a period alone on
a line as the terminator of a message you are sending. Default
escape If defined, the first character of this option gives the charac‐
ter to use in place of ‘~’ to denote escapes.
flipr Reverses the sense of reply and Reply commands. Default is
folder The name of the directory to use for storing folders of messages.
If this name begins with a ‘/’, mail considers it to be an abso‐
lute pathname; otherwise, the folder directory is found relative
to your home directory.
header If defined, initially display message headers when reading mail
or editing a mail folder. Default is header. This option can be
disabled by giving the -N flag on the command line.
hold This option is used to hold messages in the system mailbox by
default. Default is nohold.
ignore Causes interrupt signals from your terminal to be ignored and
echoed as @'s. Default is noignore.
An option related to dot is ignoreeof which makes mail refuse to
accept a ⟨control-D⟩ as the end of a message. Ignoreeof also
applies to mail command mode. Default is noignoreeof.
String used by the ~m tilde escape for indenting messages, in
place of the normal tab character (^I). Be sure to quote the
value if it contains spaces or tabs.
metoo Usually, when a group is expanded that contains the sender, the
sender is removed from the expansion. Setting this option causes
the sender to be included in the group. Default is nometoo.
quiet Suppresses the printing of the version when first invoked.
Default is noquiet.
record If defined, gives the pathname of the file used to record all
outgoing mail. If not defined, outgoing mail is not saved.
Default is norecord.
Reverses the sense of reply and Reply commands. Default is
save If this option is set, and you abort a message with two RUBOUT
(erase or delete), mail will copy the partial letter to the file
dead.letter in your home directory. Default is save.
If this option is set, then a message-list specifier in the form
“/x:y” will expand to all messages containing the substring y in
the header field x. The string search is case insensitive. If x
is omitted, it will default to the “Subject” header field. The
form “/to:y” is a special case, and will expand to all messages
containing the substring y in the “To”, “Cc” or “Bcc” header
fields. The check for "to" is case sensitive, so that “/To:y”
can be used to limit the search for y to just the “To:” field.
Default is nosearchheaders.
If defined, gives the number of lines of a message to be printed
out with the top command; normally, the first five lines are
Setting the option verbose is the same as using the -v flag on
the command line. When mail runs in verbose mode, the actual
delivery of messages is displayed on the user's terminal.
Default is noverbose.
DEAD Pathname of the file to save partial messages to in case of
interrupts or delivery errors. Default is ~/dead.letter.
EDITOR Pathname of the text editor to use in the edit command and ~e
escape. If not defined, then a default editor is used.
HOME Pathname of the user's home directory.
LISTER Pathname of the directory lister to use in the folders command.
Default is /bin/ls.
MAIL Location of the user's mailbox. Default is /var/mail.
MAILRC Pathname of file containing initial mail commands. Default is
MBOX The name of the mailbox file. It can be the name of a folder.
The default is mbox in the user's home directory.
PAGER Pathname of the program to use in the more command or when crt
variable is set. The default paginator more(1) is used if this
option is not defined.
REPLYTO If set, will be used to initialize the Reply-To field for outgo‐
SHELL Pathname of the shell to use in the ! command and the ~! escape.
A default shell is used if this option is not defined.
TMPDIR Pathname of the directory used for creating temporary files.
VISUAL Pathname of the text editor to use in the visual command and ~v
USER Login name of the user executing mail.
/var/mail/* Post office.
~/mbox User's old mail.
~/.mailrc File giving initial mail commands. This can
be overridden by setting the MAILRC environ‐
/tmp/R* Temporary files.
/usr/share/misc/mail.*help Help files.
/etc/mail.rc System-wide initialization files. Each file
will be sourced, in order, if it exists.
SEE ALSOfmt(1), newaliases(1), vacation(1), aliases(5), mailaddr(7), sendmail(8)
The Mail Reference Manual.
A mail command appeared in Version 1 AT&T UNIX. This man page is derived
from The Mail Reference Manual originally written by Kurt Shoens.
There are some flags that are not documented here. Most are not useful
to the general user.
Usually, mail is just a link to Mail and mailx, which can be confusing.
The name of the alternates list is incorrect English (it should be
“alternatives”), but is retained for compatibility.
BSD January 5, 2006 BSD