Mixed Emotions About Emoticons

Victor Wishna

Staff Writer

Victor Wishna's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR,, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

How do I feel about emoticons?


I think that means “a tad ambivalent”—that’s what I intend, anyway. I’m not very good at using emoticons, and probably wouldn’t recognize the majority of those that the kids are texting around these days. I admit that I find some emoticons helpful and even necessary as shorthand in quickly dashed-off emails and texts, particular for someone like me who finds it impossible to get through the day without at least three* amicably sarcastic remarks. The well-placed 🙂 can mean the difference between a warm response and the silent treatment. But most emoticons I find completely ridiculous. If I need to express slyness ;-), childish teasing :-P, or reveal my utter shock 😮 in writing, I’ll do so…in writing.

A somewhat interesting video history of emoticons—and, with the internet, their spread around the world—can be found here. (Apparently, it’s all the fault of some guy named Scott or, perhaps, Kevin, depending on which account you accept.)

Of course, there’s really nothing to debate: emoticons have long since become entrenched in our written communication, particularly the kind—which is now by far the most prevalent kind—that takes place via email, text, and tweet; so much so that it is embedded not just in our understanding but in most software. I had the weird experience the other day of watching Microsoft Word transform a colon-close-parenthesis combo I’d typed into a smiley face when I had actually intended it as a colon immediately followed by a close-parenthesis (not the most common series of punctuation marks, I know; this happened to be for a note on a script).

*That’s merely a minimum, of course, and by no means an average.

However, regardless of how you feel about our language’s regression to pictograms, there is a real argument to be made that written communication, even by the strictest grammatical standards (perhaps, especially so), could make use of additional marks to clarify the writer’s intent. That’s why I was quite plussed* to follow the New Yorker’s recent competition for a new punctuation mark.

*Why can’t we make this a word? That’s it currently not leaves me a bit nonplussed.

The finalists were all rather relevant, but the winning entry…well, here it is:

…for the winner we went beyond rage and self-absorption to @toddlerlit’s bad-writing apology mark. The bad-writing apology mark is simple: as its inventor explains, it merely requires you to surround a sentence with a pair of tildes when “you’re knowingly using awkward wording but don’t have time to self-edit.”

The bad-writing apology mark, which we’ll call the bwam, was one of several excellent suggestions by the same reader: others included the TUI, or Texting Under the Influence mark, and the self-censorship mark, which lets a writer indicate that there’s more to say but no comfortable way to say it. But the bad-writing apology mark took the crown because it’s in such demand in today’s breathless and poorly composed world. In fact, we’ll use it right here to explain this week’s winner: ~Real comedy mixed with real thinking is rare and and glad to pick it!~

In other words, here’s a punctuation mark that works because, increasingly, our writing doesn’t. Brilliant. A little sad, but brilliant. Or, put another way…