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Thursday, August 25, 2005
The Great Emoticon Debate
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 12:39 pm

Paladin, at a Knight’s Blog, states, in regards to emoticons:

I hate ‘em.

He then asks:

Anyway, I’m interested in why people use emoticons and punctuaticons.

Dr. Scott Nokes has an interesting, and English professory (I mean that in a good way) response.

I will assail the topic from the POV of practicality. I have been an “e-mail guy” for, in relative terms, a long time. Setting aside things like Prodigy or Compuserve, I have had a real, Al Gore approved e-mail address since the early 1990s. Indeed, my first address that I had through the University of Texas was one of those that used letters and numbers, not a username (I think it was [email protected]). The only way to access the account was via Pine running on UNIX. I could access it via dial-up on my 2400 baud modem. I was rockin’. (As a side note, I still remember when I was in High School and Steven L. had a 300 baud modem that had switches on it you had to flip to connect–and all of that to connect to a local BBS).

Since then, I learned the invaluable nature of e-mail during my 10 month sojourn living out of the country in Colombia, not to mention that it has been a wonderful tool in the academy (in terms of the ability to communicate with colleagues all over the world, not to mention the ability to procrastinate in distributing conference papers without resorting to FedEx), and later in communicating with friends and family. Add to this the fact that I teach in Distance Learning Program and blog.

All of this trip down memory lane exists to point out my bona fides in commenting on e-mail communication (indeed electronic text communication in general).

The problem is that is often extremely difficult to fully communicate tone via text and I find that a :) or a ;) — or even a :( can be quite useful is making sure that the reader knows that I am being sarcastic, trying to be funny, or am inserting some whimsy into my communications. I find it simply to be a visual cue to help a person understand my state of mind vis-a-vis what I have written. There have been a number of times that I have received a terse e-mail that would have been easier to interpret with an emoticon. Indeed, on numerous occasions I have included an emoticon after reading over a note, as it is the only way to take the statements I have written and make them clear. This may partially be due to the fact that my humor is often dry and/or understated, to the degree to which that people not paying attention may not always know when I am joking when I speak, but that there can be clear ambiguity when I write.

I have been involved (on both sides) too many cases where an e-mail was misinterpreted not to see the value of an emoticon here or there.

And, of course, context matters. It is highly unlikely that in an e-mail to the Provost that I am going to toss in a smiley. On the other hand, in quick missives to friends or family or in a blog comment it is wholly appropriate. Further, I would prefer to risk a little silliness in an e-mail to a student than to have my intent in a certain situation to be misconstrused.

I know some people find smilies silly, girlie or somehow frivolous. However, while it is clear some folks use them to extreme, I find that they are overall an aid to communication. It really isn’t much different that the way in which facial expressions can be a signal as to the meaning of spoken words (along with tone of voice).

In short: it is just an enhancement of communication, IMHO. ;)

Filed under: Computer Junk, Blogging | |Send TrackBack

Absinthe & Cookies (a bit bitter, a bit sweet) linked with To Smiley or not to Smiley....
Unlocked Wordhoard linked with Emoticons and tone


  1. “The problem is that is often extremely difficult to fully communicate tone via text and I find that a :) or a ;) — or even a :( can be quite useful is making sure that the reader knows that I am being sarcastic, trying to be funny, or am inserting some whimsy into my communications.”

    Of course! It was very rare to find any writer prior to the advent of emoticons to “communicate tone via text.” Imagine how much the writing of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Melville would have been had they employed emoticons! None of them could communicate tone worth a damn.

    Comment by Groston — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 1:53 pm

  2. Mi amigo, I am not talking about writing novels. Do you think I put emoticons in my conference papers?

    Note I was talking about e-mail.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

  3. Ultimately, it is in the same category as bolding and italicizing text in my mind–i.e., to give a visual cue.

    It also works in e-mail, because the responses are often short, if not terse.

    What, pray tell, is wrong with that?

    Also: are you suggesting that when you write an e-mail you include adjectives and adverbs to underscore your letter-writing, as is done in dialog in novels? (e.g., “I love your dress,” he said sarcastically. or “Get out!” she screamed, the pain of the even thick in her voice).

    We are talking about conversational communication, which isn’t the same as Dickens.

    And note: it ain’t as if I use them all the time on the blog, so clearly my point isn’t that they are the only way (or even the chief way) to demonstrate tone.

    For example, I noted the derision and sarcasm in your tone and your didn’t use any emoticons whatsoever.

    Indeed, can you sense my irritation and mild degree of surprise that you found it necessary to drop into a lighthearted discussion (check out the non-emoticoned text in the post again) and be rather, well, rude?


    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 2:21 pm

  4. Emoticons and tone

    Dr. Taylor at Poliblog has defended the use of emoticons because they better enable to e-mail to express tone. I’ve given a lot of thought to that issue in the past, and I’m a bit ambivalent about that argument.

    Trackback by Unlocked Wordhoard — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 2:50 pm

  5. I agree with you. Sometimes 2-dimensional text doesn’t convey tone.

    I do include smileys in my emails to adminsitration, though. Chicks can get away with that stuff. ;)

    Comment by caltechgirl — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 4:30 pm

  6. To Smiley or not to Smiley….

    So everyone by now should know what an emoticon is. You know, those little smileys. They laugh, cry, even vomit,…

    Trackback by Absinthe & Cookies (a bit bitter, a bit sweet) — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 4:32 pm

  7. I think we should add them to the past classics. It is hardly the fault of the authors that they died before the internet was brought forth from the void. Example of improved version:

    It was the best of times. :)

    It was the worst of times. :(


    Comment by Steven L. — Thursday, August 25, 2005 @ 9:12 pm

  8. And, of course, the next line of that great work is:

    “Message, Spock?”

    Ah. I do love the classics.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, August 26, 2005 @ 6:26 am

  9. I like smiles. :) Sometimes they are the only way can make sure Dr. T knows I’m not really mad at him, again. (We tend to miscommunicate at times.)

    This is my favorite smiley :P because I like to stick my tougue out at people and, although the act is childish, I still like to do it, and smileys are the only way I’ve found to do that on the internet.

    And, just for the record, and I think Scott will back me up on this, not everyone who reads a well written novel is able to exactly grasp the tone and students often get confused by sarcastic passages. That’s why we have literature professors. :)

    Comment by Jan — Friday, August 26, 2005 @ 8:17 am

  10. Ah, yes, misreading sarcastic passages.

    To thine own self be true.

    And they are all, all honorable men.


    Honestly, my dear Sultan, I had no idea I was opening such a can of worms. I thought I was just venting to both my readers. :)

    Comment by Paladin — Friday, August 26, 2005 @ 3:46 pm

  11. As a writer and a purist, I want to defend the judicious use of emoticons in emails.

    Problem is, you’re writing not just to friends who relish your dry wit, but to folks who may not even know you. A smiley helps your correspondent gauge you and encourages you to enliven your writing and take risks, eg, forays into humor or irony, without fear of misinterpretation.

    It’s a cheap shot to point out Dickens, etc. didn’t need them. When you’re reading a novel, you do not assume that the author is talking to you, Joe Blow, personally and you do not scrutinize the tone for impertinence or gather clues as to what the author really thinks of you.

    Comment by margaret — Saturday, August 27, 2005 @ 10:20 pm

  12. “Imagine how much the writing of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Melville…”

    Who… I mean the writing of random people on the internet is so precise and clear and fully edited, and yet, spontaneous that I find that I read the classic authors less, because their prose is so pretencious and condesending… As if they almost relish their status as icons of the literature world.

    Let’s not forget the wonderful texture that overuse of the ellipsis adds.. shall we :p

    Comment by Jon — Tuesday, August 30, 2005 @ 9:23 am

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