Initially, the legal values for "encoding" are "Q" and "B". These encodings are described below. The "Q" encoding is recommended for use when most of the characters to be encoded are in the ASCII character set; otherwise, the "B" encoding should be used. Nevertheless, a mail reader which claims to recognize encoded-words MUST be able to accept either encoding for any character set which it supports.
Only a subset of the printable ASCII characters may be used in encoded-text. Space and tab characters are not allowed, so that the beginning and end of an encoded-word are obvious. The "?" character is used within an encoded-word to separate the various portions of the encoded-word from one another, and thus cannot appear in the encoded-text portion. Other characters are also illegal in certain contexts. For example, an encoded-word in a "phrase" preceding an address in a From header field may not contain any of the "specials" defined in RFC 822. Finally, certain other characters are disallowed in some contexts, to ensure reliability for messages that pass through internetwork mail gateways.
The "B" encoding automatically meets these requirements. The "Q" encoding allows a wide range of printable characters to be used in non-critical locations in the message header (e.g., Subject), with fewer characters available for use in other locations.