Sarcastic Punctuation

Text can be difficult, particularly when it’s used casually and without proper context. With text messaging, email and social networking, I would argue that people are actually writing a lot more than they used to, albeit often in truncated form. Standard text messages have a limit of 160 characters (Twitter shrinks this further to 140), social network messaging rarely extends beyond a line or two and while email does lend itself to longer messages, the advent of always-on connections have shifted the form from a epistolary form to that more closely resembling CB radio, where messages ping back and forth at stilted intervals.

As communication increases in volume but diminishes in depth, some things get lost along the way, most notably nuance and it’s here that the problem lies. Various factors, such as time, availability and access conspire to transform all of our fabulous new ways to communicate into petty battlefields of misunderstanding. All to easily, messages are misunderstood and the remainder of the conversation is reduced to ascertaining whether a particular statement was meant seriously, or whether it should have been taken with a pinch of salt. Those who misunderstand are labelled as stupid, while those in the know come across as unbearably smug. This is seen most often in message boards and forums, where much of the conversation is based solely around previously posted messages and thus descend into ouroborean recriminations about who said what and what was meant by it.

It is in order to prevent this spread of petty name-calling that I propose a specific punctuation mark designed to indicate sarcasm. This should be used to indicate that a statement is not intended to be taken seriously and does not indicate the true feelings of the writer. The use of such visual indicators might seem heavy-handed, it is my belief that through use of this typographic cue, we would save a lot of fuss and bother. It could be argued that good writers should be able to make their intentions clear, but this proposal isn’t intended for the Will Selfs of the world. It’s intended for idiots who post on forums without thinking and send emails without proofreading. Idiots like me.

My first experiments with sarcastic indicators were based not upon punctuation marks, but text styling. It was my belief that in an irony-laden internet that it was more important to indicate piss-taking than it was to use bold, underline or italics. Examining a chart of CSS text decoration led me to believe that the overline could become the new indicator of flippancy, as seen in this example.

I saw a lot of films this year. Of them all, Twilight:New Moon was the best.

Initially, this seemed fine, but an isolated sarcastic statement on the internet is a rare beast indeed and when the overline is used more extensively, the problems become apparent.

There were a lot of good films that came out in 2009. Most thought-provoking of all was 2012, the film of the year. I doubt there’s a film-maker alive who’s better at handling subtle emotional scenes than Roland Emmerich.

Used in a longer paragraph, it becomes confusing as to what is being underlined to indicate emphasis and what’s being overlined to indicate sarcasm. In addition, overlining has certain technical requirements that could prevent its spread. While the CSS code can be inserted into webpages, it’s unusual to see such extensive text formatting in the average email client, forum input box or similar. If sarcastic internet punctuation mark was going to flourish, it would have to be usable in any context, and this meant it would have to be applicable in a plain-text environment.

With this in mind, I looked at the keyboard in front of me and thought about the keys I never used. There was the tilde(~) which didn’t see much action, but some research indicated that it was often used by game developers to bring up the control console and had become somewhat established in this context. It also has its uses in Linux and Windows command lines, which could lead to both technical mishaps (typing a message into the wrong window and accidentally deleting files, for example) and perhaps a reluctance on the part of geeks to learn a new use for a symbol they are already so familiar with. (For people keen on learning, geeks can be remarkably resistant to change.)

It was then that I noticed a key towards the top-left of my keyboard, just below the Escape key, bearing a symbol that I couldn’t remember ever using.


I had no idea what it meant, but it seemed to be in a prominent position and it didn’t require an arcane combination of Alt-Ctrl-Shifts to produce, so it had to be something useful. Being the lazy internet slug that I am, I looked it up on wikipedia and discovered that in mathematics it indicated negation. Put simply, writing ¬P indicates notP.

Perfect. If we are to use this as punctuation, then anything following a ¬ is not what is written. Therefore ¬Twilight:New Moon was the best film of the year is, in case you hadn’t guessed, an utterly bogus statement.

However, misunderstandings can still occur. It’s difficult to tell where the sarcasm stops, both in the case of the above statement, but more generally with the internet as a whole. Therefore, I would advocate that negation marks should encapsulate the statements so as to provide a definite start and end to the mockery. Otherwise, Lynn Truss is going to get angry with us and have to write another book. ¬Not that I’d mind. I really respect her.¬

A potential stumbling block for the use of ¬ as a punctuation mark is that, while it is easily accessed on UK QWERTY keyboards, other layouts place it in less obvious positions. The symbol is nowhere to be found on a standard US keyboard and while I could make a smug comment about Americans never being able to grasp irony, I will instead point out that it can be accessed by using the AltGr+\ key combination. While this lacks the immediate appeal of the UK designation, it does allow Americans to devlope empathy for their non-English speaking friends who have to use all sorts of strange key combinations to access their variant letters, where we Anglophones have them all laid out in front of us.

Whether the accessibility of ¬ proves to be a stumbling block to its usage remains to be seen. What’s more likely is that nobody will ever take up the idea and misunderstandings will increase in both size and severity. With an increasing amount of social and political interaction taking place online, the consequences of these crossed wires will become ever more severe and will, perhaps, lead to a fall-out of apocalyptic consequences. The seas will boil, the skies will fall and Michael McIntyre will finally be revealed as the Antichrist. He will lead an army of darkness that will fight the war to end time and billions will die in the process, all of which could have been avoided if people had just heeded my warning and made it clear when they were being sarcastic on a bloody message board and not wasted my time with their STUPID jokes…



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