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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 16 Issue 2
February 2022
Did Your Email Inbox Suddenly Change - Missing Messages? Can't Find Anything? Just Looks Wrong?

Dear Martin,

Has this ever happened to you?
Your email has been working just fine, when all of a sudden you notice that your Inbox has changed. It might appear that messages have disappeared, or that they're grouped differently. You may also feel like you can't find anything, or that it just looks wrong.
The most common explanation
In my experience working with clients, most often they prefer to see their Inbox in order by date, with the newest messages first. If your Inbox has changed in a way that makes you disoriented, the simplest (and most likely) explanation is that its sort order has changed.
For example, instead of "By Date, newest first" the message sorting might have become:
  • By Date, oldest first
  • By Subject, alphabetically A to Z
  • By Sender (or From), alphabetically Z to A
There are many other possibilities, but any other sort order will be different from the one you're used to, which can make your Inbox become extremely confusing and upsetting.
Note that if you have a Gmail account and you access it using the www.gmail.com website via your web browser, since that interface always sorts your email "By Date, newest first" with no ability to change that sorting, this particular problem won't affect you. However, if you access your Gmail using a regular email program like Outlook, Thunderbird, Apple Mail, etc., all of which do permit you to change the sorting, then this problem might come up. Either way, you might also experience the issues listed below under "Other explanations," below.
The most likely reason this happened
Your emails are probably displayed in a list, where each row represents a message.
Some email programs display information about each message in columns, each with an element of that message, including the Sender, Subject, Date, etc. Others use a more compact display without columns.
If your email program has columns, one accidental click on a column's title (i.e., a click right on the word "From" or "Subject" at the top) will immediately change the sorting of your messages to that column, which will completely change the order of your messages. To put it back the way you prefer, assuming that you like "by Date, newest first," you would just click on the word "Date" at the top of that column, and then confirm that the dates are listed with the newest ones at the top.
Note also that every column can be sorted either in increasing (ascending) or decreasing (descending) order. If your messages are in date order but with the oldest at the top, just click once more on the "Date" title and the sorting should switch to "newest first."
Some email programs use the terms "Received" or "Sent" instead of "Date."
If you look closely, you can usually tell by which column your email is sorted. Look for the indicator (which is often a little "v") right after the column title, e.g.:
  • "Received v": sorted by date, newest first
  • "Subject v": sorted by subject
Unfortunately, since most email programs remember your settings, closing and reopening your email (or restarting your computer) probably won't change the sorting.
This problem is more likely to happen if you're using a Windows or Macintosh computer to access your email, whether you use webmail or a regular email program. It's less likely to happen with a mobile device like an iPhone, iPad, or Android, because a display with columns is unlikely to be used on a smaller screen.
Unfortunately, email programs don't typically confirm when you change the sorting, nor do they have a "lock the sorting" feature to prevent changes. The assumption is that if you clicked on a column title, you must have wanted to change the way your messages are sorted.
Other explanations
Although less likely, here are some other reasons your Inbox may not look right, any of which could also have happened by accident:
  • Your Inbox is not scrolled all the way to the top, so you're not seeing the newest messages.
  • Depending on which email program you're using, you may have accidentally turned a display option on or off, including the choice of columns, their order from left to right, the width of any of the columns, the Preview Pane (Reading View) or its location, the size of the message body (its Zoom or magnification level, typically 100% by default), regular vs. expanded vs. condensed view, the list of folders or mailboxes (typically in the left-hand column), etc.
  • You started a search, for example, to show only messages containing the word "golf."
  • Your messages are "filtered," for example, to only show unread messages.
  • Your email program's window may have become smaller or moved to a different location on the screen.
  • Your email program may have been updated to a newer version, which may display things differently.
  • You're looking at different email folder or mailbox, not your Inbox.
  • You're in a different area of the program, e.g., Contacts (Address Book), Calendar, or To-do list, not the email area.
  • You're looking in a different email account, not the one you intended.
Where to go from here
  • Where X is the name of your email program, google: sort inbox X
  • google: X email inbox changed
  • google: X email view changed
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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