Why You Should Stop Worrying And Start Using Emoticons

December 1, 2011 § 5 Comments

I used to be anti-emoticon. For years, I thought of smiley faces as the mark of an immature writer, the type who punctuates a sentence with seven exclamation points. Then one day,  I was composing a sentence. I wanted to make very sure the reader knew was a joke. I was worried she would not. And I did it. I committed 🙂

Slowly, those little guys crept into my emails. I became enamored of the more clever ones, and still cannot help but smile when I see the sad monkey face: (:@

A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark. And despite the oft-repeated story that Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman invented the smiley and the frown face  in 1982, the history of emoticons goes back much further.

In 1887, Ambrose Bierce wrote an essay, “For Brevity and Clarity,” suggesting ways to alter punctuation to better represent tone. He proposed a single bracket flipped horizontally for wry smiles, “to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.”

Then in 1969, Vladimir Nabokov was interviewed by The New York Times, which asked him how he ranks himself among living writers and those of the immediate past. “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question,” he said.

So are emoticons okay to use in writing?  Absolutely. Why? Because they are a form of punctuation. Punctuation helps writers and readers understand each other. If 🙂 does that for you, use it. (But carefully: see below)

Let’s think a bit more about the history of punctuation. Originally, writing had no punctuation at all. Usually, authors dictated their words to scribes, and their words were  recordings of their speech. The scribes were simply transcribers, and had no license to add anything not heard by the speaker. So they did not use punctuation marks. (Then, no one read silently: all writing was read aloud.)

There were no spaces then, either: remember, a space is a punctuation mark, too. So people wrote using scripta continua, which, as you may guessed, meant therewerenospacesbetweenwords. As more people began reading, itbecamehardertoreadthedamnedmanuscripts. Punctuation marks were invented to ease reading aloud.

Punctuation was invented! It always has been–and will continue to be so.

The earliest marks indicated how a speaker’s voice should adjust to reflect the tone of the words. Punctus interrogativus is a precursor to today’s question mark, and it indicates that the reader should raise his voice to indicate inquisitiveness. Tone and voice were literal in those days: Punctuation told the speaker how to express the words he was reading out loud to his audience, or to himself. A question mark, a comma, a space between two words: These are symbols that denote written tone and voice for a primarily literate—as opposed to oral—culture.

There is no significant difference between question marks  and emoticons. Both attempt to capture oral tone through a written symbol.

It’s true, some people are going overboard, cluttering their writing with silly waving hands and kissy faces. But this is part of the excitement of having new punctuation to play with!!!! The same outpouring occurred in the Middle Ages, too, when the old hoary punctuation marks—the ones we now teach 5th graders—were new and exciting!!!!!!  By the first millennium, manuscripts were overrun with unintelligible marks thought up by too-clever scribes. Then the novelty wore off, and a few hundred years later, everyone tired of all the chaos. Punctuation marks became more codified, streamlined, and fewer in number. Centuries later, the marks left standing were awarded a prized place on the typewriter keyboard, leaving scads of now forgotten /// and {>+ inside the type drawers of printing presses. Today, your computer keyboard still has a only a few doo-dads to supplement the letters.

And so it goes again. We start to play. We come up with a chaotic overabundance of new punctuation marks to better express ourselves. Some will take hold; others will disappear. Given the pace of things, I’d say we have another decade or so before a few emoticons make it into grammar books and become teacher-approved. The SAT 2020 may test you on your proficiency on the rules of  😦

Meanwhile, as we are in a transitional period in punctuation history, here are a few tips:

Writing to friends? Do whatever you like. Have fun with punctuation.

Emailing for work? Scatter one of the “new official” punctuation marks now and again–:) or 😦 — if you feel it improves what you have written and you have seen others do the same in their emails. Just be aware that some people consider emoticons as a sign of poor writing. 

Writing a Professional Document? Keep them out (wait another 10 years or so you may be able to sneak them in)
(an earlier version of this was published here:)


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