Conversation view in Mutt

00a August 18, 2013 -- (tech)

My current .muttrc bases itself upon a plethora of web articles that touch this subject. I won't link any of them here, they are simply too many. Needless to say, a simple search on Mutt will send you down the path of proper configuration of this wonderful e-mail client, either through the official documentation or third-party sources such as this post.

One feature which made Gmail such a popular application and hindered my migration to Mutt a few years ago, was the so-called "conversation view", i.e. the ability to group mail-reply sequences into single linear threads. Mutt has in fact a better feature called "threaded view". It is better in that it organizes a given discussion as a tree, which gives the user a much clearer view on who responded to whom, unlike Gmail, which, as I said, only has linear threads.

To enable threads in Mutt, one must insert the following line in .muttrc:

set sort = 'threads'

or

set sort = 'reverse-threads'

to make it resemble Gmail's most-recent-first order.

Since threading is enabled, sorting is now done on two levels: one within the thread, and the other between threads. The sort_aux option controls how sorting is done between discussions and is documented in the manual. Basically, to obtain something very similar to Gmail, I use:

set sort = 'threads'
set sort_aux = 'reverse-last-date-received'

However, conversations still aren't that clearly delimited. Mutt still displays all the mails in the folder, which is a real nightmare for heavy inboxes1. And we can't, as far as I know, "squeeze" e-mails into a single conversation that shows as an item in the inbox. What we can do, however, is filter all the e-mails in a conversation using the limit function. What we want to do is make Mutt show us only the current conversation in the index and pager modes.

The following set of steps describes a simple, yet time-consuming way to achieve this:

  1. Tag all the mails in the current conversation: esc followed by t
  2. Apply limit to tagged mails: ; followed by l
  3. Limit to tagged e-mails: ~T followed by enter
  4. Untag all the mails in the current conversation: esc followed by t

The filter can be reset in a similar manner:

  1. Apply limit: l
  2. Limit to all e-mails: all followed by enter

Unfortunately, these steps can be a hassle to apply even for experimented users, since they really are time consuming, although not too hard to memorize. Fortunately, Mutt can be extended through macros, which were designed specifically for repetitive actions. Thus by pasting the following two lines in .muttrc:

macro index,pager ut <tag-thread><limit>~T<enter><tag-thread> "show only current thread"
macro index,pager ua <limit>all<enter> "show everything"

we can run the two commands by pressing u followed by t and u followed by a respectively. I've chosen u as a prefix key since it's not used for any default actions. Feel free to suggest a more meaningful combination.

Now Mutt is one step closer to the Gmail interface, while remaining more responsive and less memory-consuming, not to mention the CLI/TUI minimalistic awesomeness.


  1. I don't know why anyone would keep more than 50 mails in the inbox, but it's happened to me. There are times when writing e-mails is so much more pressing than managing them, and that's when the inbox suddenly starts gathering 100+ messages. Folders and automatic filtering help prioritize, but for some reason Mutt doesn't encourage using folders. I've been using mutt-patched for quite some time now and still haven't managed to use them properly.