A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 47: great!* Another sarcasm mark.

Hot on the heels of the Sartalics’ resurrection, and barely a decade on from the Great Sarcasm Mark Bonanza of the Noughties (I’m hoping that this sobriquet catches on), another new sarcasm mark has swum into view. It has brought friends.

New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.
New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.

I received this tweet a few weeks ago. To cut a short story shorter, it pointed the way to a website titled “get the point” proposing a set of three new punctuation marks, a sarcasm mark among them. As the site explains:

Communicating with clarity is the challenge imposed with text-based forms of dialogs, and this becomes more and more important as a greater number of our personal and professional exchanges are transacted via text-based methods of delivery.

Adding a few new punctuation marks to our written communications could help correct this situation. That’s what this is all about. [emphasis in original text]

Unlike previous efforts that might have been purely hypothetical, needed special downloads and installations, wanted to you to PAY, or required you to remember special key sequences — we can use marks that are right there, right in front of us, right now. They are clearly visible on any standard North American keyboard, and a quick tap away on tablet and mobile devices.

A laudable set of goals. What’s more, the site backs this all up with cold, hard data gathered from high school students in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that shows that happiness, humour, excitement and sarcasm were regularly misinterpreted in written communication. (You can contribute your own experiences if you’d like to add to the dataset.) To combat this lack of clarity, “get the point” proposes three new marks: an asterisk (*) for sarcasm, a question-mark-plus-tilde (?~) for confusion, and a double closing parenthesis (‘))’) for a happy or joking tone.

I can see the reasoning behind each of these: an asterisk as a footnote marker has always suggested a second or hidden meaning; the tilde is a mathematical symbol denoting an approximation; and the double parenthesis is inspired by the plain old smiley face. More intriguing is the suggestion that these marks can be combined to yield new, composite meanings, as the site demonstrates:

Well, that will be great.* (droll, deadpan)
That’s just what I need!* (agitated)
You must be so excited))* (shared joke)
Could he be more helpful?* (sarcasm rolled into a rhetorical question)
I have no idea?~* (feigned confusion)

Hmm. I was on board until the third example. To me, the individual marks work better than the combined versions: the asterisk in particular I like; the tilde is reasonably defensible; and the smiley/double parenthesis is easily interpreted even if it feels a little redundant in the face of actual smileys.

I’ve tried to get in touch with the author of this new adventure in punctuation but they seem to be keeping a low profile. If you’re the person responsible for the site, please let me know via the contact form! Better yet, leave a comment below so that Shady Characters’ astute readership can weigh in on your creations. I for one would love to learn more about the project and its goals.

All this talk of sarcasm marks reminded me of a comment left by one Catherine Barber regarding the use of ‘(!)’ as a sarcasm mark in televisual subtitles. I’d read about this before, and some digging revealed that it is perhaps the closest thing to an officially-sanctioned sarcasm mark that currently exists. This document, from the UK broadcasting standards watchdog Ofcom, says that ‘(!)’ should be used for sarcasm and ‘(?)’ for irony. As the “Guidance on Standards for Subtitling” explains,

Where tone of voice is particularly critical to meaning, and facial expression and body language are inadequate to convey the tone, the use of ‘(!)’ and ‘(?)’ immediately following speech can indicate sarcasm and irony as shown below:

No, no. You’re not late (!)

The more I think about it, the more I think I must have seen these constructions in use in Wallander, The Bridge, or another of BBC4’s imported (and subtitled) dramas. There’s a certain seductive simplicity about them, and the fact that I didn’t notice their use at the time makes me wonder if they aren’t the answer to our collective yearning for sarcasm and irony marks.

What do you think? Have you seen these marks in use? Do they fit the bill?

26 comments on “Miscellany № 47: great!* Another sarcasm mark.

  1. Comment posted by Richard Taylor on

    The first proposal is a noble effort, no doubt, and I really liked the thinking behind the asterisk in particular. The problem I see is that this system disregards what experienced internet messagers and posters already do in respect of sarcasm/happiness, which is conflate the two. They use a smiley face emoticon to indicate that that are joking, ie not serious or literal; and this often indicates sarcasm. The proposed system requires them to abandon that already (organically) established convention, and use a new one which differentiates between sarcasm and frivolity — perhaps unnecessarily.

    Re the second example (subtitling): isn’t life too short to expect people to distinguish between irony and sarcasm; and isn’t there a huge overlap between the two in any case? Furthermore, an exclamation mark in brackets can have many meanings, eg if you’re reporting someone else’s views and wish to alert your reader to a particular remark — indicating understatement, for example.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Richard — very true. The smiley can be applied to a joke to reinforce the meaning, or to a deadpan statement to imply irony or sarcasm.

      As for the subtitling section, irony is such a broad concept — a proper rhetorical figure of speech, with many shadings — that I’m not sure it needs punctuation. It’s possible to read a text, watch a play, or go to a class and to be appreciate the use of understatement, Socratic irony or dramatic irony without having to actually see it punctuated as such. Verbal irony, however, of whatever kind, is often lost when it moves from speech to writing, and I can see that ‘(!)’ (or, indeed, ‘*’) might be of help. Granted, sarcasm and irony often overlap, but they’re similarly difficult to get right in writing.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by Korhomme on

    Interesting suggestions, though I’m not entirely convinced that they work. And like the correspondent above, I can see a sort of convergence between traditional punctuation marks, ‘smileys’ and emoji used in Twitter and txt speak, where it is important to show that you’re not being serious but have only limited characters with which to get the message across. Of course, smileys and emoji are also compound marks—and if you do a search you’ll find that there are hundreds. I imagine that there aren’t so many that are used frequently.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Korhomme — absolutely. As the owner of getthepoint.me suggests, it’s in modern, short form messages where meaning is most often lost.

  3. Comment posted by Tom Ellett on

    If you’re going to use an asterisk in this way, move it to the front of the word so time isn’t lost looking for a notation on the bottom of the page.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Tom — isn’t that the point? To imply a second meaning without having to explain it? I understand that it’s visually jarring, but in a world where the ‘*’ as sarcasm mark takes off, I would imagine we’d see actual footnotes marked by numerical references rather than symbols.

    2. Comment posted by Michele Buchanan on

      I think context would, in most cases, define the difference. I’m going to drag the hashtag out as an example of a mark that leads a very comfortable existence with multiple personalities.

  4. Comment posted by SB Kravetz on

    Count me as another fan of the asterisk use proposed here. But I doubt that either the tilde or parenthesis will make a dent, the former because it’s a floating mark that appears in different places on various keyboards and is not widely known, the latter because it’s redundant in light of the ubiquitous smiley. For myself, I have been using a double ‘at’ — @@ — to represent astonishment. The intent is to mimic two widely opened eyes and I like the way it leaps out of the surrounding text, while expressing something that a simple exclamation mark doesn’t. But I don’t see it catching on, as there is a limit on how much ornamentation one wants to add to text. I think we don’t want it to become like a page of musical notation, with a parallel track of blips and blots to express emotions.

    1. Comment posted by Michele Buchanan on

      The idea behind the )) mark certainly alludes to the smiley, but I for one am loath to use any various of the smiley itself. Back in the day I really enjoyed those clever glyph combinations, but once I realized that those combinations were now sometimes being reconstituted on the recipients end as a big yellow happy face (sometimes bouncing around and — oh dear god — with accompanying maniacal laughter) I stopped using them entirely.

      It’s exactly this type of cyber-switcheroo that has me off all those emoticons.

  5. Comment posted by Randolph Watkins on

    Hello, Keith.

    At the risk of carrying coals to Newcastle, I commend to you the Dictionary-dot-com phone app, wherein a useful blog may be found. (The blog icon on the opening page takes you to today’s post. However, the pulldown button will present the complete menu, and the blog icon will give you all the recent posts. I have not yet found a way to access archive posts beyond what shows. )

    Today’s post might be called “In The Literary 100-yard DASH, EM And EN Are In a Dead Heat To Lose.” What–I can’t write headlines? No, just a ploy to allow the use the em dash and the en dash ( see dot-com above). It illustrates the growing trend against the siblings: it doesn’t compute with MicroShard and Goggle (*), and they’ve virtually disappeared from computer keyboards–were they ever there?!

    There is also nice piece on the hyphen.

    Although I’m sure you’re most likely aware of the blog, I thought I’d offer it up just in case. I enjoy yours immensely; keep digging. Randolph

    1. Comment posted by Phillip Patriakeas on

      As a counterpoint to that blog post, I would point out that Wikipedia maintains stringent guidelines on when to use what dash, and more importantly enforces these guidelines, even having automated tools to help do so.

  6. Comment posted by Kalan on

    Parentheses, both closing and open, are already widely used instead of corresponding smileys by Russians, Ukrainians and so on. Though it varies from person to person, usually parentheses are lightweight, “Cheshire Cat” versions of actual “eyed” smileys, not really expressing the emotion but rather giving a hint on the tone of the phrase.

    Some people in the community completely disregard this practice as awful, others limit their use (e. g. no more than one parenthesis at a time).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Kalan — that’s interesting. It’s always illuminating to get a sense of how non-English writers punctuate, and it’s even more illuminating when they use an entirely different alphabet. (I can quite see why more than one parenthesis might be considered…not ideal.) Thanks for the comment!

  7. Comment posted by Mike on

    Yes these are ^great^ ideas.

    In all seriousness, the intent is close to my heart but the asterisk is not fit for task. Although the asterisk is underutilized, most people will start looking for a footnote when they see one*. Also the asterisk is too blunt, it doesn’t pinpoint your the inflection of the sarcasm.

    The sarcastrophe, enclosing sarcasm between two caret (^), does a fine job without requiring a new symbol. It needs to find wider usage, that way people will see that I’m ^funny^ rather than insensitive.

    *This is a test.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Mike — I wonder, is the sarcastrophe just another way of employing “scare quotes”? The implication seems to be the same.

    2. Comment posted by Michele Buchanan on

      Mike, I think if you re-read Keith’s original post you will see that there are many options to combine the * with other marks to get the tone just right.

    3. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      It looks like the ^word^ has grown cat’s ears.

    4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      The sarcat-trophe.

  8. Comment posted by Mike on

    It appears so. I wasn’t aware of their existence as the redundant uses of ^'”‘^* means you can’t tell “scare quotes”** from actual quotes. I may have mistaken “scare quotes” for people quoting a moron.

    Can a punctuation mark be “profoundly” under-used (?)*** Once a punctuation mark has a use the subsequent uses have to be clearly delineated from the original. The “*” is good for <3 footnotes and superscripting numerals is a bridge too far for most. ^It could be a useful way to convert people to LaTex.^

    Many place carets around the whole sarcastic sentence but being able to pinpoint the central sarcastic conceit to a word or two allows you to denote deadpan or dripping forms of sarcasm. To me having a start and finish mark is an advantage of "^" over "(!)" and it's also -1 keystroke.

    The reasoning for using the "*" is satisfying but irrelevant due to the redundancy. You can't solve a lack of clarity in written communication introducing ambiguous punctuation. Clear function is the starting point and the carets solve that. I realise I'm coming off overly negative here. It may be a demonstration that whatever is chosen to represent sarcasm should be used sparingly and that could be the reason for poor uptake of the various sarcasm marks. They are used sparingly by those who know about them and this means that the word doesn't spread.

    * yes that's a sarcastic/ironic quotation of a quotation mark.
    **In this case I was quoting you )).
    *** That's satisfying, but do I need another "?".

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I can see the attraction of more “targetable” sarcastrophes. Aesthetically, though, the asterisk-as-sarcasm-mark still wins for me. It’ll be interesting to see which mark (if any!) manages to reach anything like mainstream use.

  9. Comment posted by Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd) on

    I am a fan of microsyntax like the hashtag. A few thoughts.

    The use of parens to represent an aside is commonplace in written English (and very helpful, they are, too). And in theater, an aside is intended to represent the true feelings of a character for the benefit of the audience, without being heard by the other players.

    So I recommend that parens be used for sarcasm, irony, and so on. For example,

    Dear @absquith, thanks for the suggestion (like I’d listen to him)

    I also use parens around an entire Tweet to denote something that only my closest friends would care about, like

    (Distant trains rolling south, howling like cheated lovers.)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Stowe — thanks for weighing in! Your point about parentheses/asides is a good one, although I wonder if parenthesising an entire tweet might not obscure its meaning. Isn’t it the case that the entire point of a parenthesised statement that it digresses from, or stands in relation to, the normal stream of text?

  10. Comment posted by Michele Buchanan on

    First, thanks so much for devoting so many characters to ‘get the point’. I know at first glance the various iterations of * in combination with other marks looks unwieldy, but it was provided merely as an example, not a rule. Sarcasm can be slippery slope, being able to clarify the tone (and intent) of such remarks could go a long way to avoiding — well — pissing people off.

    I’d like to weigh in on the ( ) discussion. On my back-burner was the notion of promoting (?) for rhetorical questions – precisely because it reads as an aside. Stowe suggests that statements of sarcasm and irony (“and so on”?~) could be defined by simply placing them into parentheses, but that that tact seems to dismiss how very different sarcasm and irony are. Further, sarcasm can be wielded in support of very different goals.

    If historical efforts are used as an indicator, sarcasm, irony, humor, and rhetorical questions seem to be popular choices, but are often inaccurately regarded as roughly equivalent—each really suggests a very different intent and attitude. The vitriol that sarcasm injects into a dialog should not be confused with a benignly humorous ‘ha, just kidding’ statement. True ironic comments, on the other hand, typically speculate on the “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”. A rhetorical question is simply a question asked, in a variety of contexts, which does not seek to solicit a reply. It is possible to find irony supporting sarcasm in the form of a rhetorical question for the purposes of humor, but a single mark or method to signal all such intents violates the parameter of specificity that will support the clarity new punctuations should facilitate.

  11. Comment posted by Vikki McDonough on

    I propose to call the sarcastic use of * the “sarcasterisk”.

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