3. Folders and Mail Searching

Anybody who gets lots of email definitely wants to be able to prioritize, stamp, brief, de-brief, and number their emails in a variety of different ways. MH can do this better than just about anything. One thing that we have not really talked about is the concept of folders. You have undoubtedly come across the folders concept using other email programs. MH has folders too. MH can even do sub-folders of a folder. One thing you should keep in mind with MH is that when you ran inc for the first time and it asked you if it could create a Mail directory it began storing everything in that directory. If you look at that directory you will find a directory named inbox. The inbox directory houses all of your incoming mail that has not been thrown anywhere else.

Whenever you create a new folder a new directory is going to be created underneath your MH Mail directory, and messages in that folder are going to be stored in that directory. When a new email message comes, it is thrown into your inbox directory with a file name that is equivalent to the message number. So even if you did not have any of the MH tools to read your email you could still use standard UNIX® commands to munge around in those directories and just more your files. It is this simplicity that really gives you a lot of power with what you can do with your email.

Just as you can use message lists like 23 16 42 with most MH commands there is a folder option you can specify with just about every MH command. If you do a scan +freebsd it will scan your freebsd folder, and your current folder will be changed to freebsd. If you do a show +freebsd 23 16 42, show is going to switch to your freebsd folder and display messages 23, 16 and 42. So remember that +folder syntax. You will need to make sure you use it to make commands process different folders. Remember you default folder for mail is inbox so doing a folder +inbox should always get you back to your mail. Of course, in MH's infinite flexibility this can be changed but most places have probably left it as inbox.

3.1. pick—search email that matches certain criteria

pick is one of the more complex commands in the MH system. So you might want to read the pick(1) man page for a more thorough understanding. At its simplest level you can do something like

% pick -search pci

This will tell pick to look through every single line in every message in your current folder and tell you which message numbers it found the word pci in. You can then show those messages and read them if you wish or rmm them. You would have to specify something like show 15 42 55-57 to display them though. A slightly more useful thing to do is this:

% pick -search pci -seq pick
5 hits
% show pick

This will show you the same messages you just did not have to work as hard to do it. The -seq option is really an abbreviation of -sequence and pick is just a sequence which contains the message numbers that matched. You can use sequences with just about any MH command. So you could have done an rmm pick and all those messages would be removed instead. You sequence can be named anything. If you run pick again it will overwrite the old sequence if you use the same name.

Doing a pick -search can be a bit more time consuming than just searching for message from someone, or to someone. So pick allows you to use the following predefined search criteria:


search based upon who the message is to


search based on who is in the Cc: list


search for who sent the message


search for emails with this subject


find emails with a matching date


search for any other component in the header. (i.e. --reply-to to find all emails with a certain reply-to in the header)

This allows you to do things like

% pick -to freebsd-hackers@FreeBSD.org -seq hackers

to get a list of all the email send to the FreeBSD hackers mailing list. pick also allows you to group these criteria in different ways using the following options:

  • -and

  • -or

  • -not

  • -lbrace-rbrace

These commands allow you to do things like

% pick -to freebsd-hackers -or -cc freebsd-hackers

That will grab all the email in your inbox that was sent to freebsd-hackers or cc'd to that list. The brace options allow you to group search criteria together. This is sometimes very necessary as in the following example

% pick -lbrace -to freebsd-hackers -and
  -not -cc freebsd-questions -rbrace -and -subject pci

Basically this says pick (to freebsd-hackers and not cc'd on freebsd-questions) and the subject is pci. It should look through your folder and find all messages sent to the freebsd-hackers list that are not cc'd to the freebsd-questions list and contain pci in the subject line. Ordinarily you might have to worry about something called operator precedence. Remember in math how you evaluate from left to right and you do multiplication and division first and addition and subtraction second? MH has the same type of rules for pick. It is fairly complex so you might want to study the manual page. This document is just to help you get acquainted with MH.

3.2. folder, folders, refile—three useful programs for folder maintenance

There are three programs which are primarily just for manipulating your folders. The folder program is used to switch between folders, pack them, and list them. At its simplest level you can do a folder +newfolder and you will be switched into newfolder. From there on out all your MH commands like comp, repl, scan, and show will act on that newfolder folder.

Sometimes when you are reading and deleting messages you will develop holes in your folders. If you do a scan you might just see messages 34, 35, 36, 43, 55, 56, 57, 80. If you do a folder -pack this will renumber all your messages so that there are no holes. It does not actually delete any messages though. So you may need to periodically go through and physically delete rmm'd messages.

If you need statistics on your folders you can do a folders or folder -all to list all your folders, how many messages they have, what the current message is in each one and so on. This line of stats it displays for all your folders is the same one you get when you change to a folder with folder +foldername. A folders command looks like this:

                Folder      # of messages (  range  ); cur  msg  (other files)
              announce  has    1 message  (   1-   1).
                drafts  has   no messages.
             f-hackers  has   43 messages (   1-  43).
           f-questions  has   16 messages (   1-  16).
                 inbox+ has   35 messages (   1-  38); cur=  37.
                 lists  has    8 messages (   1-   8).
             netfuture  has    1 message  (   1-   1).
                   out  has   31 messages (   1-  31).
              personal  has    6 messages (   1-   6).
                  todo  has   58 messages (   1-  58); cur=   1.

                     TOTAL=  199 messages in 13 folders.

The refile command is what you use to move messages between folders. When you do something like refile 23 +netfuture message number 23 is moved into the netfuture folder. You could also do something like refile 23 +netfuture/latest which would put message number 23 in a subfolder called latest under the netfuture folder. If you want to keep a message in the current folder and link it you can do a refile -link 23 +netfuture which would keep 23 in your current inbox but also list in your netfuture folder. You are probably beginning to realize some of the really powerful things you can do with MH.

All FreeBSD documents are available for download at http://ftp.FreeBSD.org/pub/FreeBSD/doc/

Questions that are not answered by the documentation may be sent to <freebsd-questions@FreeBSD.org>.
Send questions about this document to <freebsd-doc@FreeBSD.org>.