Is there a consensus on the grammatical relationship between emoticons and punctuation?
April 8, 2008 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Is there a consensus on the grammatical relationship between emoticons and punctuation?

Completely serious question- have any of the big style guides addressed this burning issue? To wit-

Which applies best?
A) That's classy ;)
B) That's classy. ;)
C) That's classy ;).

If it's a single sentence, I usually go with A, but if it's in the middle of a paragraph, it's suddenly an awkward construction. Also, does it apply across the board to other punctuation marks like exclamation points and question marks?
posted by mkultra to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the consensus is that in any sort of writing that would conform to a style guide, emoticons are verboten. Much in the same way that italics and bold may not be used for emphasis because the writing must be strong enough to speak for itself, emoticons should not be used in serious writing.
posted by explosion at 8:43 AM on April 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


Hey--kill two birds with one stone ;^!
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:44 AM on April 8, 2008


I have this problem a lot, because I'm anal about this type of thing. For your examples, I would go with B, even if it was a different punctuation mark. For me, the biggest problems come up when using parentheses. I often want to put a smiling aside in parens, but then what do you do? Do you allow the smiley to stand in for the closing paren? Or do you double up?

A) (that's what he said, anyway! :-)

B) (that's what he said, anyway! :-) )

A always feels unfinished to me, and B always seems awkward. I've started using square brackets instead.

C) [that's what he said, anyway! :-)]

It's not perfect, but it's my preferred method.

Anyway, this isn't a style guide at all, but I hope it's somewhat helpful.
posted by cider at 8:49 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


seconding explosion's comment

for informal, the emoticon takes the place of the punctuation >.<
posted by phritosan at 8:49 AM on April 8, 2008


Someone needs to get out their copy of ttyl and figure out what publishers think.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:52 AM on April 8, 2008


I usually opt for version B, though I don't think there's a consensus. Putting the punctuation (whether it's a period, exclamation point, etc.) before the emoticon seems to give the sentence a sense of completion.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:53 AM on April 8, 2008


Thirding explosion. It seems to me that this could come up in formal writing only if you were citing an email message verbatim, in which case you'd just copy the original.

Having said that, I favor B.
posted by futility closet at 8:57 AM on April 8, 2008


B lacks clear boundaries if you have more than one sentence! >:O I'd normally give an unemotional supporting sentence at this point, but you'll just think i'm yelling the whole time.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:02 AM on April 8, 2008


I've always thought that emoticons are a separate entity from punctuation, therefore they occur outside of punctuation:

Thats classy. :)
(thats what he said, anyway!) :)
omg :), thats so awesome!

At least thats how I do it. (unless I'm sick, lazy, or otherwise dont have the energy for proper punctuation/grammar.)
posted by jmnugent at 9:05 AM on April 8, 2008


I want to clarify my 3rd example:

omg :), thats so awesome!

...since I said I usually put emoticons outside of punctuation , but in this example I didnt. The reason is because putting the smiley inside the comma (next to the "omg") illustrates a 'smile of surprise". If I had put the smiley at the end after "awesome!" it would be more of a "smile at the awesome-ness" of your statement, not the amount you surprised me.
posted by jmnugent at 9:09 AM on April 8, 2008


I think the consensus is that in any sort of writing that would conform to a style guide, emoticons are verboten. Much in the same way that italics and bold may not be used for emphasis because the writing must be strong enough to speak for itself, emoticons should not be used in serious writing.

Maybe in Ivory Tower theory, but not in practice. I wouldn't go so far as to call them commonplace, but I've definitely seen the odd smiley in a "legit" piece (usually tech- or culture-related). Hell, I'm pretty sure every issue of Wired has one somewhere.

I'm not hung up on finding a rule coming from, say, the Grey Lady, but more that someone with some semblance of authority has weighed in.
posted by mkultra at 9:09 AM on April 8, 2008


I always put punctuation after, but use a space: "That's classy ;) ."

(And yes, I also double up on parentheses :) ). It gets easier when most of your emoticons are used on IM because the program replaces them with little pictures that reduce redundancy (and Gtalk, which turns them right-way-up).
posted by Cricket at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2008


A. Emoticons are just repurposed punctuation, so ;) can replace a comma in the middle of a sentence or a period at the end of one etc. But yeah, probably nowhere in style-guide writing :|
posted by Who_Am_I at 9:22 AM on April 8, 2008


Damned interesting question. I use emoticons very sparingly, and I realize now that my solution to the problem has been to reduce my scope of allowable uses to paragraph-/line-terminal positions, after final punctuation. So as far as that goes, I'm in favor of (B) in formal-ish, standardized writing, though I can accept (A) in a context where the writing is already informal (e.g. "oh no you didn't ;)" as the whole message).

(C) seems ugly to me, specifically in the case of paragraph-terminal positioning, but I can see the argument for it in the case of sentence-terminal placement in the middle of a paragraph.

[that's what he said, anyway! :-)]

I have an (arbitrary, I suppose) inclination to reserve square-brackets-as-parantheses for 2nd-level nested uses (or for certain special editorial uses), but I have to admit that that's an elegant solution to the nested-smiley problem.

omg :), thats so awesome!

This, too, reads like a reasonable handling, much as I'd be unlikely to drop an emoticon in mid-sentence like that.

As a question of what sort of token an emoticon is, this is just really a great question to dig into.
posted by cortex at 9:24 AM on April 8, 2008


I'd argue that emoticons are a form of punctuation, mood punctuation, and, in fact, posted an AskMe about it in 2006. You should therefore treat it like punctuation. It replaces some punctuation, but not all For example, if you wanted to say "that's classy! :)" you could instead write "that's classy :D"

As to question marks, they're still necessary. I'd go with "that's classy? ;)"

And in your example I'd go with option A.

But no, there's no consensus, just go with what looks best to you.
posted by Kattullus at 9:29 AM on April 8, 2008


The New York Times has had several articles with emoticons (usually articles about emoticons) and in cases where the emoticon appeared at the end of the sentence, it served as the final punctuation:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/29/fashion/29emoticon.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=emoticon&st=nyt&scp=2
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/opinion/14dowd.html?scp=10&sq=emoticons&st=nyt
posted by justkevin at 9:42 AM on April 8, 2008


(B) is best. Keep the emoticon as separate as possible from actual prose.

italics and bold may not be used for emphasis because the writing must be strong enough to speak for itself

Incorrect.
posted by jejune at 9:49 AM on April 8, 2008


I risk derailment, but must respectfully disagree that "emoticons are just repurposed punctuation" or "emoticons are a form of punctuation".
Emoticons are a hedge-bet, a cheat, an assertion that your intended audience will not truly understand what you are saying.
It can be a digital dose of passive aggression: "I'm just joking! Really! That bit of sarcasm wasn't what I realllly meant..."
Or it is never enough: "I love you. (REALLY)".
Using them does not enrich discourse; it reveals only the author's insecurity by the same mechanism that seeks to mask it.
A comma used properly is simple excellence. A comma awkwardly pasted onto a parenthesis next to an apostrophe doesn't improve muddled intentions or sloppy thoughts.
posted by Dizzy at 9:51 AM on April 8, 2008


I consider emoticons as separate and stand-alone commentary on what precedes them and so use them after the sentence in question is complete:

Must dash (I have to go to a meeting). Yuck.

Must dash (I have to go to a meeting). :-(
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2008


Dizzy, your derail is welcomed and insightful ;)

("I'm just joking! Really! That bit of sarcasm wasn't what I realllly meant...")
posted by mkultra at 10:24 AM on April 8, 2008


("-")
' '
' '
(Dizzy wept.)
posted by Dizzy at 10:30 AM on April 8, 2008


I tend to use it in place of terminal punctuation - the period always looks so awkward. However, I only use it in conversational writing - light forum posts, chat, that sort of thing - where even my most anal-retentive editor friends (and I have a lot of them) don't care much one way or the other.

To continue the derail, I use emoticons as a stand-in for facial expressions in what is, essentially, dialogue. Were I actually writing dialogue, I'd be able to actually indicate facial expressions and tone without doing anything unusual (she said wryly,) but when the dialogue is realtime, I need another option, and smileys are it. :P
posted by restless_nomad at 10:34 AM on April 8, 2008


In formal writing you would not use emoticons. (I would happily grant that Wired uses an informal style.) In informal writing there is no need to consult style guides. Thus, it seems to me, you are unlikely to find what you are looking for.

Similarly, in informal writing (e-mails, forum posts, etc.) no one bothers to correct, or even notice, comma splices or improper use of numerals. While in formal writing we do not use boldface for emphasis and so style guides do not inform us on how to use boldface for emphasis.

Analogously you might as well ask for an authoritative source on using em-dashes in hyphenation. You shouldn't, so there is none.

(You've asked for both consensus and for an authoritative opinion. Of course, my comments do not touch on the likelihood of finding the former.)
posted by oddman at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2008


oddman: In formal writing you would not use emoticons. (I would happily grant that Wired uses an informal style.) In informal writing there is no need to consult style guides. Thus, it seems to me, you are unlikely to find what you are looking for.

I'd argue that the rise of blogging in particular (and the internet in general), the line between formal and informal writing has become quite hazy. I don't predict emoticons in legislative language, but inserting an emoticon into an otherwise grammatically-correct sentence is increasingly common (think: work email). Why not have consistency?
posted by mkultra at 11:58 AM on April 8, 2008


I tend to put a period or whatever after I use an emoticon. For me putting an emoticon outside of the sentence makes it seem like it doesn't belong to the sentence. Not using any end punctuation at all leaves the sentence feeling incomplete.
posted by MadamM at 12:22 PM on April 8, 2008


mkultra: Work memos have rarely been properly edited and formatted to a style guide, whether emailed or merely circulated prior to the advent of commonplace email. Using an emoticon is similar to using an apostrophe to denote plural: common, but incorrect.

I've also had people write work emails that I've received with light blue backgrounds, breezy signatures, and Comic Sans. It's not going to get them fired, but it lowered my opinion of them in the professional light, and it's pretty much inappropriate.

Asking how to properly format emoticons in writing is like asking how to properly wear cargo shorts on Wall Street.
posted by explosion at 12:49 PM on April 8, 2008


I'd argue that the rise of blogging in particular (and the internet in general), the line between formal and informal writing has become quite hazy. I don't predict emoticons in legislative language, but inserting an emoticon into an otherwise grammatically-correct sentence is increasingly common (think: work email). Why not have consistency?

Well, I would argue that the vast majority of writing on the internet is clearly informal. Sure, some internet practices might someday be adopted into formal contexts, but right now the distinction is still very clear. As explosion noted, work e-mails and memos are not examples of formal writing. You seem to equate grammatically correct writing with formal writing, but the two are not the same. For example, contractions are grammatically correct but you will never see a contraction in formal writing.

Consistency is great. I'm a big fan of consistency; it make communication a lot easier. And you may very well find a consensus on the issue; I hope you do! :)

However, asking for a common usage is simply not the same as asking for formal usage. That was, and is, my point.
posted by oddman at 1:15 PM on April 8, 2008


If you're writing the sort of sloppy English that allows emoticons, you might as well skip the formal grammar and go right for the Lolcat.

When I see an emoticon, I stop caring about what I'm reading (unless I know the writer has trouble with English and is worried about not being able to get the point across without graphics). I'm especially annoyed when people use emoticons while cutting across my lawn.
posted by pracowity at 1:19 PM on April 8, 2008


I tend to use emoticons as terminal punctuation, so there's no corresponding period after an emoticon. I also place emoticons in a standalone manner after a normally punctuated sentence. Those two usages are subtly different in tone, but if I'm lazy, sometimes I don't distinguish between them.

Parenthetical asides containing emoticons is complicated most by typographical custom. Two right parentheses next to each other looks unnatural, for example. The best I can do is to insert a space between the terminal emoticon and the closing parenthesis.

It's really too bad we don't shift emoticons 90 degrees clockwise, as the Japanese do -- they're more expressive and less smug ^O_o^
posted by Jubal Kessler at 1:32 PM on April 8, 2008


I always put them on the other side of the punctuation, otherwise it looks awkward. :)

And never more than one emoticon a paragraph because that gets confusing to read. I find them really useful for making meaning clear, for example:

My kitty died! :(

VS

My kitty died! >:(

The idea is that the emoticon indicates the mood of the whole bit of text, and that each new paragraph should be a new mood.
posted by Phalene at 1:34 PM on April 8, 2008


The point about Wired and the NYT using them in articles is interesting. Have you condsidered writing the editor and asking them if they have in-house style guides for emoticon use?

not saying you'd get an answer back, but it might be worth it.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:42 PM on April 8, 2008


When I do use emoticons, I tend to use them in place of terminal punctuation. Then again, I use emoticons almost exclusively in instant messaging, where I tend to forgo periods (and often capitalization) anyway, viz.:

MetroidBaby: ok so usually i'm metaknight but i totally love squirtle
MetroidBaby: cause he's all like SQUIRTLE SQUIRTEL
MetroidBaby: :)
MetroidBaby: oh sweet
MetroidBaby: futurama's on

Maybe the prevalence of emoticons in chat, and the relative absence of periods, would go some way towards explaining the popularity of emoticons in place of punctuation.

However, if I'm writing for an audience that would notice a misplaced comma, I'm not going to use emoticons.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:00 PM on April 8, 2008


Metroid Baby, et al---
You make excellent points.
Yet My Inner Crankiness responds:
Soon, NO AUDIENCE will notice a misplaced comma.
posted by Dizzy at 2:32 PM on April 8, 2008


In the OP's example I would go for the route of omitting the full stop. I would only use an emoticon in an informal writerly way, or on IM. For me it's a lazy way to fix what I've written if I feel it didn't convey the tone I was looking for exactly. Or, as Dizzy said, sort of insincere. So:

A) that's classy ;)

which, by the way, I interpret as being sarcastic. Is that the consensus here? Our problem is this, an inadequate investigation into the possible misinterpretation of emoticons.

For cider's quandary I imagine it would be permissible to switch to a different emoticon species, thusly:

(that's what he said, anyway! ^^)

... Then opening the whole can o'worms (or rolling out the plate of beans, what have you) of whether it's okay to mix different emoticon varieties within one email, or if doing such would make you fair game for mockery, jeering, etc.
posted by eponymouse at 3:03 PM on April 8, 2008


If Wired Magazine uses them, maybe Wired Style will tell you something. I haven't read it.

I have to agree with everyone who says "If you're going to use emoticons, you might as well throw your copy of Strunk and White out the window and wear a clown nose." I use emoticons in online fora such as this, but in every professional writing situation I've dealt with they were frowned upon. :(

I tend to keep them outside the punctuation as above. :)
posted by mmoncur at 5:38 PM on April 8, 2008


I've always viewed emoticons as their own expressions - they may be made up of punctuation marks, but they aren't punctuation on their own.

Of the three examples in the OP, I use the second: That's classy. ;)
To me, the first example leaves the sentence unpunctuated. In the third, the period (or other punctuation mark) could be construed as part of the emoticon, confusing the expression you're trying to make.

When using a smiley at the end of a parenthetical phrase, I tend use an extra space or two between the emoticon and the last parenthesis: (that's classy ;) )
It still seems a bit awkward to me, but better than leaving the last parenthesis off (leaving the parenthetical phrase open) or placing it next to the emoticon.

Even though emoticons aren't accepted in formal writing styles, you don't need to throw out all grammar when writing informally.
posted by youngergirl44 at 6:06 PM on April 8, 2008


I personally go with B. I don't like A because it has no punctuation, and C just looks weird to me. (It actually bothers me to look at C.)

Of course, like others have said, once you're using emoticons it doesn't really matter anymore.
posted by Nattie at 12:39 AM on April 9, 2008


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