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Solution to: mail syntax error, operation failed in Linux

How to solve a syntax error problem when attempting to read mail on Linux based systems from a terminal.


Edited: 2020-09-29 10:18

mail: syntax error
mail: Operation failed

Some users prefer reading e-mail from a terminal using the mail or mutt commands, but if you have configured your server to use ~/Maildir/ instead of the mbox format, you may run into syntax errors that prevents you from reading your e-mail with mail.

I recently attempted to read my root e-mail on a linux server, since I got a notification telling me root had new messages. I also got Dovecot setup on this server, and I configured it with ~/Maildir/, so I suspect that might be the cause of the problem.

Instead of using the mail command to read e-mail from a terminal, you can use the mutt command:

mutt -f ~/Maildir/

This will open up the e-mail inbox of the currently logged in user, and is also friendlier than using a text-editor like nano to read your e-mails. Note that the Maildir directory is usually located in the users home directory, but can also be located in other places, depending on your configuration — you probably already know that, but sometimes it is useful with these reminders.

Linux based systems generally uses "standard" locations for things, and once you get to know these locations, it will be much easier to memorize.

Reading mail from terminal

While most users read their e-mail from the comfort of a GUI-based application, some also prefer to use the terminal to read their e-mail. There is almost no difference between the two, except that HTML e-mails are more difficult to read from text-editors.

We also got e-mail applications for the terminal, and a couple of those include mutt and mail. But, some text editors are also useful e-mail clients, emax is probably a good example of a text editor that also works as a e-mail reader; you may need to configure them for HTML though!

I hope this little article helped you out — be sure to check my other articles on Linux ;-)


  1. Rate limiting your postfix server to limit the amount of e-mail a single user can send.
  2. How to configure a SMTP server with letsencrypt on an amazon EC2 instance.
  3. How to use SPF records to increase the likelihood that your e-mails will be received and not go to spam.
  4. How to configure Postfix to use Lets Encrypt certificates.
  5. How to debug problems with a Dovecot server using log files.

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