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MAIL(1) General Commands Manual MAIL(1)

mail, mailx, Mailsend and receive mail

mail [-dEIinv] [-b list] [-c list] [-r from-addr] [-s subjectto-addr ...

mail [-dEIiNnv] -f [file]

mail [-dEIiNnv] [-u user]

mail is an intelligent mail processing system which has a command syntax reminiscent of ed(1) with lines replaced by messages.

The options are as follows:

Send blind carbon copies to list.
Send carbon copies to list of users. list should be a comma separated list of names.
Causes mail to output all sorts of information useful for debugging mail.
Don't send messages with an empty body.
Use an alternate mailbox. Defaults to the user's mbox if no file is specified. When quit, mail writes undeleted messages back to this file.
Forces mail to run in interactive mode, even when input is not a terminal. In particular, the special ~ command character, used when sending mail, is only available interactively.
Ignore tty interrupt signals. This is particularly useful when using mail on noisy phone lines.
Inhibits initial display of message headers when reading mail or editing a mail folder.
Inhibits reading /etc/mail.rc upon startup.
Use from-addr as the from address in the message and envelope. Overrides any from options in the startup files.
Specify subject on command line (only the first argument after the -s flag is used as a subject; be careful to quote subjects containing spaces).
Equivalent to:

$ mail -f /var/mail/user

except that locking is done.

Verbose mode. The details of delivery are displayed on the user's terminal.

At startup time, mail will execute commands in the system command file, /etc/mail.rc, unless explicitly told not to by using the -n option. Next, the commands in the user's personal command file ~/.mailrc are executed. mail then examines its command line options to determine whether the user requested a new message to be sent or existing messages in a mailbox to be examined.

To send a message to one or more people, mail can be invoked with arguments 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 (‘^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 letter.

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 set to the first message (numbered 1) and can be printed using the print command (which can be abbreviated p). Moving among the messages is much like moving between lines in ed(1); you may use + and - to shift forwards and backwards, or simply enter a message number to move directly.

After examining a message, you can delete (d) 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 number, or the mail session can be aborted by giving the exit (x) command. Deleted messages, however, will 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.

Messages may also be selected using one of the following categories:

all messages
last message
deleted messages
new messages
old messages
read messages
unread messages

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 messages.

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 composing a message, mail treats lines beginning with the tilde (‘~’) character specially. For instance, typing ~m (alone on a line) will place a copy of the current message into the response, right shifting it by a single tab-stop (see the 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.)

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).

It is also possible to create 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)); 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 through an MTA.

Recipient addresses (any of the “To”, “Cc” or “Bcc” header fields) are subject to expansion when the expandaddr option is set.

An address may be expanded as follows:

  • An address that starts with a pipe (‘|’) character is treated as a command to run. The command immediately following the ‘|’ is executed with the message as its standard input.
  • An address that starts with a ‘+’ character is treated as a folder.
  • An address that contains a ‘/’ character but no ‘!’, ‘%’, or ‘@’ characters is also treated as a folder.
  • If none of the above apply, the recipient is treated as a local or network mail address.

If the expandaddr option is not set (the default), no expansion is performed and the recipient is treated as a local or network mail address.

(Adapted from the “Mail Reference Manual”.)

Each command is typed on a line by itself, and may take arguments following 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 nth previous message and prints it.
Prints the currently selected message number.
Prints a brief summary of commands.
Executes the shell (see sh(1) and csh(1)) command which follows.
(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 alternate names is displayed.
(cd or ch) Changes the user's working directory to that specified, if given. If no directory is given, then changes to the user's login directory.
(c) 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.
(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.
(also dt) Deletes the current message and prints the next message. If there is no next message, mail says “No more messages.
(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 in.
(ex or x) Effects an immediate return to the shell without modifying the user's system mailbox, mbox file, or edit file in -f.
(fi) The same as 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 mailbox, %user means user's system mailbox, & means your mbox file, and +folder means a file in your folder directory.
List the names of the folders in your folder directory.
(f) Takes a list of messages and prints their message headers.
(h) Lists the current windowful of headers. To view the next or previous group of headers, see the z command.
A synonym for ?.
(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.
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, including ignored fields. If ignore is executed with no arguments, it lists the current set of ignored fields.
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.
(l) List the valid mail commands.
(m) Takes as argument login names and distribution group names and sends mail to those people.
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 have the hold option set.
(mo) Takes a message list and invokes the pager on that list.
(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.
(P) Like print but also prints out ignored header fields. See also print, ignore, and retain.
(p) Takes a message list and types out each message on the user's terminal.
(q) Terminates the session, saving all undeleted, unsaved messages in the mbox file in the user's login directory, preserving all messages marked with hold or preserve or never referenced in the user's system mailbox, and removing all other messages from the user's system 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 command.
(R) Reply to originator. Does not reply to other recipients of the original message.
(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.
Add the list of header fields named to the retained list. Only the header fields in the retain list are shown on your terminal when you print a message. All other header fields are suppressed. The Type and Print commands can be used to print a message in its entirety. If retain is executed with no arguments, it lists the current set of retained fields.
(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 terminal.
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.
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 overrides saveignore.
(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="->".
(sh) Invokes an interactive version of the shell.
Takes a message list and prints out the size in characters of each message.
The source command reads commands from a file.
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 five.
(T) Identical to the Print command.
(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 significance.
(u) Takes a message list and marks each message as not being deleted.
(U) Takes a message list and marks each message as not having been read.
Takes a list of option names and discards their remembered values; the inverse of set.
(v) Takes a message list and invokes the display editor on each message.
(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.
(x) A synonym for exit.
mail presents message headers in windowfuls as described under the headers command. You can move mail's attention 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 misnomer since the actual escape character can be set by the option escape.

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).

name ...
Add the given names to the list of carbon copy recipients.

Read the file dead.letter from your home directory into the message.

Invoke the text editor on the message collected so far. After the editing session is finished, you may continue appending text to the message.

Identical to ~f, except all message headers are included.

Read the named messages into the message being sent. If no messages are specified, read in the current message. Message headers currently being ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are not included.

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.

Identical to ~m, except all message headers are included.

Read the named messages into the message being sent, indented by a tab or by the value of indentprefix. If no messages are specified, read the current message. Message headers currently being ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are not included.

Print out the message collected so far, prefaced by the message header fields.

Abort the message being sent, copying the message to dead.letter in your home directory if save is set.

Read the named file into the message.

Cause the named string to become the current subject field.

name ...
Add the given names to the direct recipient list.

Invoke an alternate editor (defined by the VISUAL option) on the message collected so far. Usually, the alternate 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.

Abort the message being sent. No message is copied to ~/dead.letter, even if save is set.

Prints a brief summary of tilde escapes.

Execute the indicated shell command, then return to the message.

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.

Execute the given mail command. Not all commands, however, are allowed.

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.

Simulate end of file on input.

A number of options can be set in the .mailrc file to alter the behavior of mail, controlled via the set and unset 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. The binary options include the following:

Causes messages saved in mbox to be appended to the end rather than prepended. This should always be set (perhaps in /etc/mail.rc).
ask, asksub
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.
Causes you to be prompted for additional blind carbon copy recipients at the end of each message. Responding with a newline indicates your satisfaction with the current list.
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.
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.
Causes the delete command to behave like dp; thus, after deleting a message, the next one will be typed automatically.
Setting the binary option debug is the same as specifying -d on the command line and causes mail to output all sorts of information useful for debugging mail.
The binary option dot causes mail to interpret a period alone on a line as the terminator of a message you are sending.
Causes mail to expand message recipient addresses, as explained in the section Recipient address specifications.
Causes mail to use the specified sender address in the “From:” field of the message header. A stripped down version of the address is also used in the message envelope. If unset, the message will not include an explicit sender address and a default value will be added by the MTA, typically “user@host”. This value can be overridden by specifying the -r flag on the command line.
This option is used to hold messages in the system mailbox by default.
Causes interrupt signals from your terminal to be ignored and echoed as @'s.
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.
Setting this option causes mail to truncate your system mailbox instead of deleting it when it's empty.
Messages saved with the save command are not normally saved in mbox at quit time. Use this option to retain those messages.
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.
Setting the option noheader is the same as giving the -N flag on the command line.
Normally, when you abort a message with two interrupt characters (usually control-C), mail copies the partial letter to the file dead.letter in your home directory. Setting the binary option nosave prevents this.
Suppresses the printing of the version when first invoked.
Reverses the sense of reply and Reply commands.
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.
Don't send messages with an empty body.
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.

Pathname of the text editor to use in the edit command and ~e escape. If not defined, /usr/bin/ex is used.
Pathname of the directory lister to use in the folders command. Default is /bin/ls.
The name of the mbox file. It can be the name of a folder. The default is “mbox” in the user's home directory.
Pathname of the program to use in the more command or when the crt variable is set. The default paginator more(1) is used if this option is not defined.
Pathname of the shell to use in the ! command and the ~! escape. A default shell is used if this option is not defined.
Pathname of the text editor to use in the visual command and ~v escape. If not defined, /usr/bin/vi is used.
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)).
If defined, the first character of this option gives the character to use in the place of ~ to denote escapes.
The name of the directory to use for storing folders of messages. If this name begins with a ‘/’, mail considers it to be an absolute pathname; otherwise, the folder directory is found relative to your home directory.
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.
If defined, gives the pathname of the file used to record all outgoing mail. If not defined, then outgoing mail is not so saved.
Size of window of message headers for z.
Pathname to an alternative mail delivery system.
If defined, gives the number of lines of a message to be printed out with the top command; normally, the first five lines are printed.

mail utilizes the HOME, LOGNAME, MAIL, MAILRC, and USER environment variables.

If the MAIL environment variable is set, its value is used as the path to the user's mail spool.

post office (unless overridden by the MAIL environment variable)
user's old mail
file giving initial mail commands; can be overridden by setting the MAILRC environment variable
temporary files
help files
system initialization file

The mail utility exits 0 on success, and >0 if an error occurs.

fmt(1), lockspool(1), vacation(1), aliases(5), mail.local(8), newaliases(8), sendmail(8), smtpd(8)

Kurt Shoens, Mail Reference Manual, 4.4BSD User's Supplementary Documents (USD).

The mailx utility is compliant with the IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 (“POSIX.1”) specification.

The flags [-iNnu] are marked by IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 (“POSIX.1”) as being optional.

The flags [-eFH] are marked by IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 (“POSIX.1”) as being optional, and are not supported by this implementation of mailx.

The flags [-bcdEIrv] are extensions to the specification.

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.

Usually, mail and mailx are just links to Mail, which can be confusing.

March 31, 2022 OpenBSD-current