Editorial - Why the emoticon is a stain on civilisation ;-)

17th April 2015 at 01:00

The exclamation mark, known fondly among tabloid sub-editors as a dog's dick, is in frisky form. Originally used sparingly and reserved purely for exclamations such as "Surprise!", it has taken on a new role with the advent of texts and emails in conveying emotion.

Dubbed "ur emoticons" by Will Schwalbe - co-author with David Shipley of Send: why people email so badly and how to do it better - swarms of these "whooping exclamation points", as Mark Twain described them, scream out from the world of electronic missives louder than a gaggle of One Direction fans.

Hands up, guilty as charged. After years of fastidiously pruning exclamation marks from acres of text, I am finding myself using them more and more. Because what's worse is the alternative: the portmanteau emoticon, a monster assembled out of random punctuation marks, one of which most people don't even know how to use properly. Yes, I'm talking about the semicolon, that wonderful weapon of soft power in a sentence; it's a mark that's stronger than a comma but gentler than a full point.

You may disagree and share writer Kurt Vonnegut's view of semicolons as "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college." But do they deserve this modern fate of being forced into a loveless marriage with a parenthesis, winking at you cheekily from the end of a lame joke?

However terrifying this vision is, there is an even worse textual gargoyle: the smiley face, or emoji. This cheery yellow horror grins out from the page shouting "THIS IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY". Where once carefully and lovingly crafted language would whisper irony, now a grinning lunatic yells it at you.

Sadly, these monstrosities are hard to avoid and there are often no warning signs before they appear in all their taunting glory. When I was editor of our sister publication Times Higher Education, I used to receive extremely erudite emails from a prominent US academic about his latest research. He would always sign off his missives with a smiley face, sending me into a rage against all humanity.

Clearly this is territory to be navigated with care. Pity the poor teachers who have to not only teach conventional punctuation but also steer children through a morass of overuse and inappropriateness. "How many times have I read a piece of writing with 50 exclamation marks in it?" asks Chris Curtis.

Young people need to understand, he says, that using an exclamation mark just once, in the right place, has far greater impact than deploying a whole army of them. And they need to learn that punctuation is so much more than a functional mark at the end, middle or beginning of a sentence. Unless, of course, they want to spend their life studying arcane legal drafts that do away with it altogether.

Most importantly of all, they need to learn when using an emoticon is acceptable. A text to a friend? Yes. An email to your boss? Depends how good your relationship is. An application for a job? No. An email to an editor? Never!



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