Email Tips: What's With That J? Plus Thunderbird Tweaks

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Last week I answered a couple of reader questions... so this week I'm tackling a couple of mine.

Why Does the Letter 'J' Keep Appearing in My E-Mail Messages?

Have you noticed the strange, inexplicable, seemingly random appearance of the letter J in some e-mail messages? Usually it crops up at the end of sentences, though sometimes it lands smack in the middle of them.

What's going on here? Some weird virus? Do a lot of people accidentally fat-finger the letter J? Or is "J" some new hip-hop slang, as in, "Dang, that new LMFAO tune is so J!"

No, no, and no. What's happening here is that someone sent you a smiley emoticon, but your mail client didn't display it properly.

For example, in Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail client I use and detest, when I type a colon and right-parenthesis, then hit Space, Outlook converts this popular "smiley" emoticon into an actual little smiley face. (I'm sure there's some way to turn off this "autocorrect" "feature," but wading into Outlook's endless and mysterious settings menus makes my brain cry.)

The recipients of that e-mail may see that same smiley face (or one like it), or they may see only a letter J--especially if it's a smartphone- or Web-based mail client. In Gmail, for example, you see that J in the abbreviated e-mail body that appears when viewing your inbox. (When you actually open the message, however, the smiley should appear.) I've also noticed this in my iPhone's inbox.

So that's the explanation in a nutshell: the J appears when your mail client can't properly render a smiley icon. Weird but true!

Make Thunderbird Mark Email as Read After You Reply

One of my resolutions for 2012 is to break free of Microsoft Outlook. My dislike of that program knows no bounds, yet I've been stuck with it for years. Now I'm shopping for replacements.

I'll need a new e-mail client, and I know Mozilla Thunderbird's reputation well enough to make it my first candidate. After spending an afternoon with the program, I found myself exasperated by one incomprehensibly dumb feature (or lack thereof): If you've tweaked one setting, when you reply to an e-mail, Thunderbird doesn't mark it as read.

Huh? Seriously? It's true. By default, Thunderbird will mark a message as read after you've viewed it for a certain amount of time (five seconds is the standard setting). But I always turn that option off, as I'm not always done with an e-mail the first time I look at it.

With that setting off, Thunderbird won't mark any message as read, even if you reply to it. Ridiculous.

Fortunately, there's an add-on that can save the day. It's called Change Quote and Reply Format (not the most glamorous name, I grant you), and it works. To get it, click the link above, scroll down to the bottom of the page, then download the file (which is provided in xpi format). Now fire up Thunderbird, then click Tools, Add-ons. Next to the field marked "Search all add-ons," click the little gear and choose Install Add-on From File. Navigate to the folder where you saved the xpi file, click it, and then click Open. Now click Extensions, find the Change Quote and Reply Format add-on, and click Options. Click the "Format and actions tab," then enable Mark message as read after reply. Click OK and you're done.

Now, when you reply to an e-mail, Thunderbird will mark it as read.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog. My 411: You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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