A few weeks ago I think – though I can remember almost none of the details – I came across an article complaining about how emoticons (or “smileys”) were a terrible thing, symptomatic of declining standards of literacy and probably going to single-handedly bring about the end of civilisation within the next decade, or something like that. Even accounting for the slight possibility that I imagined the whole thing (possibly in a dream resulting from excessive exposure to linguistics), you don’t have to look far on the Internet to find not entirely dissimilar sentiments.

By “emoticons” I refer to those typographic representations of emotions (and occasionally other things), usually in the form of a stylised facial expression – e.g.


– but often converted into (sometimes quite badly designed) “actual” images depending on what social medium, text messaging service etc. you are using at the time.

So, are emoticons a portent of the apocalypse? I am inclined to think they are rather a fairly natural development of the way written language works. Compare ordinary punctuation: full stops and commas and things like that. When our alphabet was first being developed, people didn’t use punctuation at all, and even once they began to the details of their usage were very variable for a very long time. Something resembling our modern system of punctuation, with its complex (and disputed) rules about where or where not to put commas and its diverse range of standardised symbols including colons, semicolons, dashes, brackets, quotation marks etc. etc., only really arises around five hundred years ago. Many other writing systems continue to use little or no punctuation, and the symbols they do use are often only recently borrowed from the West.

So – in spite of contrived examples about the consumption of grandmothers or vegetation – people are demonstrably perfectly capable of getting on fine without punctuation. But nowadays nearly everybody uses punctuation unless they are simply ignorant of the rules or being deliberately avant garde. Why? Partially because punctuation, while not necessary for communicating effectively, is nevertheless useful.

What has this got to do with emoticons? Well, I think the same thing applies. We don’t absolutely need them, which is why some people say things like “I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?“. There are always going to be emoticon-free ways of communicating the same message, just as I could no doubt find a way to write this post without using any commas without hampering its intelligibility, if I so desired. But at the same time emoticons are helpful: it’s nice to be able to say “I am feeling happy/sad/confused about this” or “I am joking”, or whatever, without having to write out all those words, just as using commas gives me an advantage in communicating how a sentence should be parsed.

In our writing, the letters of the alphabet only communicate what linguists call the “segmental” aspects of our speech. Now, this is perfectly adequate to convey much meaning – indeed, many writing systems (e.g. Arabic) get away with even less, by omitting vowels and only writing consonants. But there are still other things which spoken language gets across, known as “suprasegmental” aspects. Some of these can be conveyed through punctuation: for instance full stops and commas tell us something about sentence structure, something which in speech is conveyed through pauses and intonation. Question and exclamation marks, likewise, capture something of intonation patterns which are otherwise lost in writing.

Punctuation, however, still doesn’t allow writing to easily communicate everything we regularly communicate in speech. For example, you can usually tell just from listening to someone (even on the telephone, in the absence of visual cues) how they they feel about what they’re talking about, or if they are joking or not. In writing, it can be a lot harder. Emoticons go some way towards mitigating this problem: a smiling face expresses much the same thing as a pleased-sounding tone of voice, just as a question mark corresponds to a questioning intonation. This is particularly important in the context of the new, rapid exchange type of writing (in function more closely resembling speech) that has arisen in the advent of new technologies.

So – in spite of the fact that those who get annoyed by emoticons are probably also those most likely to get annoyed by absent punctuation – emoticons and punctuation are ultimately doing basically the same thing: capturing something of spoken language which is otherwise lost in writing. They enhance our communicative abilities, rather than impairing them.

So they probably aren’t something worth getting annoyed about. 🙂