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35.3 Header Field Contents

The field of the H configuration command may contain any ASCII characters, including whitespace and newlines that result from joining. For most headers, however, those characters must obey the following rules for grouping: [2]

[2] This discussion is adapted from RFC822.


In the header field, space characters separate one item from another. Each space-delimited item is further subdivided by specials (see below), into atoms.

smtp          <- an atom
foo@host      <- atom special atom
Babe Ruth     <- atom atom

An atom is the smallest unit in a header and may not contain any control characters. When the field is an address, an atom is the same thing as a token (see Chapter 28, Rules).


The special characters are those used to separate one component of an address from another. They are internally defined as:

( ) < > @ , ; : \ " . [ ]

A special character can be made nonspecial by preceding it with a backslash character, for example,

foo;fum       <- atom special atom
foo\;fum      <- one atom

The space and tab characters are also used to separate atoms and can be thought of as specials.

Quoted text

Quotation marks can be used to force multiple items to be treated as a single atom. For example,

Babe Ruth       <- atom atom
"Babe Ruth"     <- a single atom

Quoted text may contain any characters except the quotation mark (") and the backslash character (\).

Any text

Some headers, such as Subject: (see Section 35.10.31, Subject:), impose no rules on the text in the header field. For such headers, atoms, specials, and quotes have no significance, and the entire field is taken as arbitrary text.

The detailed requirements of each header name are covered at the end of this chapter.

35.3.1 Macros in the Header Field

Macros may appear in any position in the field of a header definition line. Such macros are not expanded (their values tested or used) until mail is queued or delivered. For the meaning of each macro name and a description of when each is given a value, see Chapter 31, Defined Macros.

Only two macro prefixes may be used in the field of header definitions: $ The $ prefix tells sendmail to replace the macro's name with its value at that place in the field definition. $? The $? prefix tells sendmail to perform conditional replacement of a macro's value.

For example, the following header definition uses the $ prefix to insert the value of the macro x into the header field:

HFull-Name: $x

The macro $x (see Section 31.10.42, $x) contains as its value the full name of the sender.

When the possibility exists that a macro will not have a value at the time the header line is processed, the $? conditional prefix (see Section 31.6, "Macro Conditionals: $?, $|, and $.") may be used:

HReceived: $?sfrom $s $.by $j ($v/$V)

Here, the $? prefix and $. operator cause the text

from $s

to be inserted into the header field only if the macro s has a value. $s may contain as its value the name of the sending site.

35.3.2 Escape Character in the Header Field

Recall that the backslash escape character (\) is used to deprive the special characters of their special meaning. In the field of header definitions the escape character may be used only inside quoted strings (see next item), in domain literals (addresses enclosed in square bracket pairs), or in comments (see below). Specifically, this means that the escape character may not be used within atoms. Therefore the following is not legal:

Full\ Name@domain        <- not legal

Instead, the atom to the left of the @ must be isolated with quotation marks:

"Full Name"@domain        <- legal

35.3.3 Quoted Strings in the Header Field

Recall that quotation marks (") force arbitrary text to be viewed as a single atom. Arbitrary text is everything (including joined lines) that begins with the first quotation mark and ends with the final quotation mark. The following example illustrates two quoted strings:

"Full Name"
"One long string carried over
        two lines by indenting the second"

The quotation mark character may appear inside a quoted string only if it is escaped by using a backslash. [3]

[3] Note that the backslash itself may not appear within full quotation marks.

"George Herman \"Babe\" Ruth"

Internally, sendmail does not check for balanced quotation marks. If it finds the first but not the second, it takes everything up to the end of the line as the quoted string.

When quotation marks are used in an H configuration command, they must be balanced. Although sendmail remains silent, unbalanced quotation marks can cause serious problems when they are propagated to other programs.

35.3.4 Comments in the Header Field

Comments consist of text inside a header field that is intended to give humans additional information. Comments are saved internally by sendmail when processing headers, then are restored, but otherwise are not used. Beginning with V8.7 sendmail, the F=c delivery agent flag (see Section 30.8.14, F=c) can be used to prevent restoration of the saved comments.

A comment begins with a left parenthesis and ends with a right parenthesis. Comments may nest. The following lines illustrate a non-nested comment and a comment nested inside another:

(this is a comment)
(text(this is a comment nested inside another)text)

Comments may be split over multiple lines by indenting:

(this is a comment
       split into two lines)

A comment (even if nested) separates one atom from another just like a space or a tab does. Therefore the following produces two atoms rather than one:


However, comments inside quoted strings are not special, so the following produces a single atom:


Parentheses may exist inside of comments only if they are escaped with a backslash:

<root@host.domain> (The happy administrator ;-\))
                                              note Balancing special characters

Many of the special characters that are used in the header field and in addresses need to appear in balanced pairs. Table 35.1 shows these characters and the characters needed to balance them. Failure to maintain balance can lead to failed mail. Note that only parentheses may be nested. None of the other balanced pairs may nest.

Table 35.1: Balancing Characters

You have already seen the quoted string and comments. The angle brackets (< and >) are used to specify a machine-readable address, such as <>. The square brackets ([ and ]) are used to specify a direct Internet address (one that bypasses normal DNS name lookups) such as [].

The sendmail program gives warnings about unbalanced characters only when it is attempting to extract an address from a header definition, from the header line of a mail message, or from the envelope. Beginning with V8.6, when sendmail finds an unbalanced condition, it tries to balance the offending characters as rationally as possible. Whether or not it can balance them, it prints one of the following warning messages:

Unbalanced ')'
Unbalanced '>'
Unbalanced '('
Unbalanced '<'
Unbalanced '"'

If it did not succeed in balancing them, the mail will probably bounce.

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