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Folowing on from my previous question Are "txt-speak" and "emoticons" examples of normal language evolution? I would like to propose that emoticons are simply now symbols of punctuation, rather than icons.

Icons tend to represent a thing or an action. Save, Folder etc. The same is true on road signs, icons for railways, danger etc. An emoticon conveys context. It tells the reader how to interpret what you are saying. Spoken communication does this with voice tone and gestures. Emoticons are more like punctuation than words. :) means I mean this to be interpreted light hardedly, ;), cheeky, or edgy, in the same way that a ? would ask the reader to read the sentence in the style of a question, or ! an expletive.

Could it be said that emoticons are punctuation?

  • The effect of an emoticon does seem analogous to that or ! or ? but they scope differently. While a ! or ? only affect a single sentence, emoticons seem to be able to scope over entire paragraphs. – acattle Mar 12 '13 at 8:01
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    Whether or not emoticons are punctuation is not a question that can be objectively answered. The classification (one way or the other) will depend a lot on the convention one chooses to use. This kind of question, which solicits debate, is not fit for SE sites. – Otavio Macedo Mar 12 '13 at 12:22
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    @OtavioMacedo I think you're being a little over zealous, it's not an open ended question, however I'll edit it is you think there'd be a better wording. The only point of contention is what defines punctuation. – BanksySan Mar 12 '13 at 12:26
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    I'm removing my downvote which was due to agreeing with Otavio that it can't be objectively answered. I think we have a worthy discussion of the topic now though even if a definitive answer might no be acheivable. – hippietrail Nov 24 '13 at 2:34
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    @hippietrail 10/10 for revisiting a downvote. I am impressed. I agree that the question has generated an interesting discussion. I guess, what is the difference between an discussion and debate? Maybe that's a good question to ask (just not on SE as it might generate debate). – BanksySan Nov 24 '13 at 20:58
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I'm sorry that I can't upvote your comment yet, but I did just join the site in order to reply. While you might not find it in any formal prescriptive English grammar book as yet, there's plenty of evidence that emoticons are functioning in exactly the same way that canonical, traditional punctuation does: namely, they're pragmatic or discourse marks.

There's quite a bit of literature supporting the assertion that punctuation functions in this way (beyond simply indicating pauses found in regular speech which set clauses apart, or carrying information which is ambiguous in vocal speech, such as the apostrophes in possessives or commas to delimit items in lists). For instance, "scare quotes" may not be indicated in the phonetic form of an utterance, but are still articulated by a change in stress (or as "air quotes").

Further, to the commenter who suggested that emoticons only provide a discourse- or paragraph-wide context, it's been shown that emoticons actually do segment clauses (occurring regularly at the end of a sentence to which they attach illocutionary force), thereby punctuating.

Markman and Oshima write:

Although the emoticon has been most frequently associated with adding emotion to CMD [Computer Mediated Discourse], at a pragmatic level, emoticons > appear to clearly serve a specific purpose within thestructure of the message. Specifically,we would like to propose that emoticons serve as punctuating devices in CMD. In these data, emoticons are most typically deployed at the end of sentences or clauses (when part of a parenthetical remark), or turns at chat, either with or in placeof standard sentence-final punctuation marks. In this usage, the emoticon functions to close off the sentence or thought by confirming the action performed by the text. In this sense, the emoticon can be seen to complement, strengthen, or clarify the illocutionary force of the utterance, while at the same time providing a cue to interpreting the structure of the message. (Markman, Oshima 2007)

Ultimately, remember that this is a Linguistics, not a traditional English Grammar & Composition, forum. The objective here is not to dismiss real linguistic phenomena on stylistic grounds, but to recognize and describe them as part of the living, changing thing that language is, and not as one feels it "ought" to be.

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Is one willing to accept that there is a new kind of communication channel with its own elements? The question then is, what kind of a transference phenomenon do we see from CMD to other kinds of communication because unless that happens emoticons are just that: emoticons.

The transference may even be to verbal communication, nonverbal gestures, in addition to the written language.


  • Note how quotes were invented to convey an aspect of spoken language in the written one. Also note how 'air quotes' in gestures (and a particular structure in speech) are used to convey the officiousness of an element of the written language: the quote.
  • Note how since the last decade and a half, bullet has been given the status of a punctuation mark; a glyph which originates in technical literature and now is in mainstream written English. Also note how there is a new tendency in spoken English to recreate this bulleted structure orally (I am trying to find evidence, name for this).

  • Note that the "period" was used to indicate a finished thought or sentence in written language, but now the term is also used in conversation to convey this- terminal aspect ie to mean "the end of the matter": e.g., "We will not do it. Period.".

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    Interesting point, could you give some examples of other transference phenomenon? I suspect that the channel for transference is the tone and intent that a message is relayed to others or replayed internally. – BanksySan Nov 16 '13 at 20:24
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I recall that in ancient Egyptian some hieroglyphs were used "markers" to resolve ambiguity or indicate a noun was a member of a special group, even though not meant to be pronounced. E.g. a beetle sign was placed after a group of signs denoting a bird's name to indicate such noun was meant to be read as a "flying entity" (i.e. really a bird's name) and not as a person's name. There were other characters used to emphasize a noun was a person's name, and names of gods and royalty were inscribed within special cartridges.

Are these signs a kind of punctuation, or mere typographical conventions? Do they have a formal name? They do transmit information, furthermore, information that's not a merely a verbatim transcription of what the actual speech said but actually expands it. Similar to when some printed media add a small cross after a person's name to indicate they're dead.

Emoticons play a similar role in modern electronic communications - they expand the written message, though in this way to compensate the loss of emotional information that in face-to-face communication is transmitted mostly via physical gestures, and to a lesser extent in verbal channels that are not written down: intonation, volume and pauses in the speech.

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