Monday 27 July 2020

“ok” “ok.” and “ok!” How we use punctuation to convey tone online.

As a result of technology, many of our casual, everyday conversations now take place online, in written form. This has in turn changed how we write informally, which is the topic of Gretchen McCulloch’s 2019 book Because Internet. This book focuses on how the internet is changing language and is written for a general audience. Chapter 4 discusses how we convey our emotions through written language, and the history of these conventions. Conversational writing has caused us to find innovative ways of replicating our speech in our writing, both our words, and our tone, which McCulloch calls typographical tone of voice.

Why is it so much scarier to receive a text saying “ok.” than “ok”? In online messaging, we tend to use line or message breaks, rather than full stops, to convey the end of an utterance. Full stops are associated with falling intonation (in the same way that a question mark indicates rising intonation), which doesn’t often occur in actual speech, and many of our messages are designed to replicate speech. In some contexts (like “ok.”), implied falling intonation can be interpreted as passive-aggressive or angry, which has been noticed in the media since 2013.

Some conventions, particularly those for strong emotion, have been around a lot longer than the internet. For example, YOU ARE PROBABLY SHOUTING THIS SENTENCE IN YOUR HEAD, because for at least a century, capital letters have been a way of expressing strong emotion. Another is repeating letters, particularly in emotive words, such as “yayyy” or “nooo”. This also predates the internet, with the earliest example coming from 1848, and gaining popularity throughout the 20th century in sounds such as “ahhh” or “hmmm”. In a 2011 study of Twitter, sentiment words were the most common to be lengthened in this way: examples being “ugh” “lmao” “damn” and “nice”.

McCulloch also discusses the ways in which we soften a message, to come across as friendly or approachable. The exclamation point has progressed from signifying ‘excitement’ to being associated with ‘warmth’ and ‘sincerity’, which is why most younger people would prefer to receive a text saying “ok!” than “ok”. ‘lol’, rather than meaning that you are actually laughing out loud, has taken on the function of polite laughter, and smiley faces (i.e., emoticons/ emojis) have the same impact, tempering the tone of a message, making it appear friendlier.

One area of interest is how we indicate that we are being sarcastic without outright saying #sarcasm (which, after all, would defeat the point of being sarcastic). In speech, sarcasm is conveyed through tone of voice and facial expressions: in written text, we need a way to signify these additional meanings, without explicitly stating that we’re making a joke. While many options have been officially suggested, these don’t tend to stick. One that has is the sarcasm tilde (~), which McCulloch argues derives from the mid-2000s days of MySpace ‘sparkle punctuation’, where users used punctuation marks for aesthetic purposes. Now, using ~ in a message indicates that it isn’t serious, which we then, based on context, can interpret as irony or sarcasm: McCulloch calls this ‘sparkle sarcasm’. The sarcasm tilde also can also be seen as a literal representation of the way in which your tone rises and falls when being sarcastic.

A Tumblr post from 2016

Ironic emphasis is also an interesting area to examine. The Tumblr post above, a screenshot from 2016, shows just some of the ways in which emphasis was conveyed. Unexpected capital letters, spacing out letters, using hashtags or TM are all used by the author to add emphasis.

However, it is interesting to note that the rest of this sentence is devoid of punctuation: there is no full stop, ‘tumblr’ is uncapitalized, and neither is ‘i’ at the beginning of the sentence. McCulloch calls this lack of punctuation ‘minimalist typography’ and discusses how this is used to convey tone of voice, particularly in the current era of smartphones. With predictive text, writing a sentence without capitalising the first word, or even writing ‘i’ requires extra effort: even while writing this post, my word processor automatically capitalises a single i, and I have to go back to retype it. This extra effort conveys meaning to the reader through absence: the capital letters in an otherwise uncapitalized sentence indicates that the author has used these typographic forms for some specific reason. McCulloch describes minimalist punctuation as “an open canvas, inviting you to fill in the gaps”.

These are just some of the ways in which we reflect our tone in typed speech, from caps lock, to passive aggressive punctuation. Given the developments that have occurred in the last twenty years alone, it is highly likely that these conventions will continue to change, and generations to come will develop their own conventions for irony, passive aggression, and humour. Because Internet is a fascinating snapshot of how language is being used on the internet currently, and I do recommend it as an enjoyable and interesting read.


McCulloch, Gretchen. 2019. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books.

This summary was written by Rhona Graham

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