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I signed up simply to ask this question, although it's awfully niche.

In textual situations, such as for roleplay or for humor, on the internet, one will use the third-person singular form of a verb to express that they are the one carrying it out. The best example I can conjure of this is someone saying "winks [at you]" in a text message - using asterisks to imply that it is an action.

It is "he/she winks," not "I winks."

Why do we do this? Any theories?

Many thanks.

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  • We do it to pretend it's an action, just like you said. "I'm winking at you" would imply you're really doing it and feel quite weird.
    – LjL
    Oct 1, 2023 at 18:01
  • @LjL That’s probably true, but why does winks not feel “quite weird” but “I’m winking at you” does?
    – Graham H.
    Oct 1, 2023 at 19:41
  • This is a style question, not a linguistics question. Textile situation? The s is for says the speaker.
    – Lambie
    Oct 1, 2023 at 19:49
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    I think you mean textual. Textile is about woven (or other) fabric not about text.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 1, 2023 at 21:47
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    @GrahamH. I believe that's because certain protocols and conventions that emerged on the internet made it natural. Other people have mentioned IRC, that's one clear example. Other protocols also offer "/me" functionality, so on the ones that don't, people were used to it and "added" it using their own conventions, such as asterisks. In turn, I think the reason it feels natural to have "/me" functionality in chat protocols is that the most conspicuously missing thing in text chat compared to real-life interactions is the absence of actions. Wanting to "emulate" actions is then natural.
    – LjL
    Oct 2, 2023 at 20:30

1 Answer 1

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In IRC (and I imagine other early text-based messaging services), someone's online handle would usually appear immediately to the left of their message. So a message like "winks at you" would be displayed as "Draconis winks at you". (Sometimes there was a special syntax to ensure there wouldn't be a colon between the username and the message, too, specifically for things like this.)

In other words, it's third person singular to agree with the sender's username, as read by the recipient.

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    This was even clearer with IRC commands: /me winks would display: cmw winks.
    – cmw
    Oct 1, 2023 at 4:22
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    The interesting thing is that this has been carried over (I guess?) into quite different contexts, such as inline ‘mood/action descriptors’ in asterisks, where the subject is virtually always implied. For example, something like this would be completely natural in a comment on social media: “Oh my god, I need this right now *hyperventilates*” (with the asterisked verb in the third person singular). Oct 1, 2023 at 9:20
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    That would not be my guess. It must be simply a transfer from transcribed conversations where "[laughs]" etc. traditionally appear.
    – Nardog
    Oct 1, 2023 at 12:23
  • @Nardog The IRC use presumably extends the earlier transcription use, but there is the fundamental difference that transcriptions are written by someone else, so the third person makes sense there: the transcriber is literally recording a third person’s speech/actions. In IRC and ‘asterisk’ use, the writer refers to their own speech/actions in the third person, often even mixed in with normal first-person usage. Oct 2, 2023 at 9:13
  • My own theory is that it's a stylistic choice. In English, "[I] wink" doesn't represent the timing we want it to (as this is strict to habitual usage, really), but "[I'm] winking" may just seem too drawn out. It's possible that we simply use the third-person form because it looks nicer: that extra S on the end. Although, Draconis' hypothesis seems reasonable. Thanks for the answer!
    – urro
    Oct 2, 2023 at 20:50

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