A Linguist Explains How We Write Sarcasm on the Internet -The Toast

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tumblr_mea7bgoKkh1qzi80do1_r1_500Gretchen McCulloch’s previous linguistics columns for The Toast can be found here. They are all perfect.

Sarcasm. It’s an Essential Part of a Healthy Breakfast™, but it’s also “dangerous”, especially in writing. What if ~no one~ gets that u are being sarcastic.

this is literally the most srs bsns question ever.

Right, okay, that’s probably enough of the sarcasm voice. The point is, we can speak sarcastically by rolling our eyes or using a particular tone of voice, but what about writing? Why don’t we have a sarcastic equivalent of a question mark or an exclamation mark?

Turns out, it’s not for lack of trying.

There’s a venerable history of proposals for irony punctuation. The backwards question mark ⸮ is probably the most popular: it was first proposed in the 1500s as the percontation point, and was subsequently re-proposed by several people in the 1800s as the slightly catchier irony mark. The 1800s also saw a proposed “oversize arrow head with small stem”, the 1600s saw a proposal for an upside-down exclamation mark ¡, and the 1900s saw the Greek letter psi with a dot underneath (approximately Ψ̣ if my fonts would line up better). And it hasn’t stopped: in the 2000s, we’ve already gotten proposals for both a lightning-bolt exclamation mark and a (proprietary) round-swirly symbol with a dot in the middle, the Sarc Mark. (You can read all about them in detail on the glorious Irony Punctuation Wikipedia article.)


Irony mark as designed by Alcanter de Brahm in a French encyclopedia from 1905

But while these geniuses were coming up with fanciful additions to the keyboard, regular citizens were taking matters into their own, air-quoting hands. We’ve ended up with a whole lot of them, and for the most part they’ve been spontaneously invented by residents of the internet. Let’s take a look — and then we’ll get back to why these methods succeeded where centuries of proposed irony punctuation had failed.


The punctuation-mark-inventors may have been heading in the right general direction (#bless) but it turns out it’s clumsy to create an additional character — and you often want to put that ironic emphasis on a particular word or phrase. Enter sarcastic “quotation marks,” tildes (~so effective), and the elaborate variations which a colleague of mine refers to as ~*~sparkly unicorn punctuation~*~. True, it’s sometimes used for excitement or quoting song lyrics, but when I saw a friend reblog a tumblr post with the tag ~*misandry*~, I knew she was ironically distancing herself from the topic in true Toastean fashion.

But we also sometimes do the opposite: lack of punctuation, especially a question minus its question mark accompanied by all-lowercase, often conveys disingenuous deadpan snark, a sort of “I already know the answer to this question but I’m just going to say it anyway. I might be hoping you’ll laugh, but I’m definitely not asking you for it.” Here’s an example:


Minimalist capitalization, often combined with minimal punctuation, is also a tremendously productive source of sarcasm. If standardly-capitalized and punctuated text is a regular newsreader voice and all-caps and/or repeated punctuation is SHOUTING!!!! or ENTHUSIASM???, then no-caps with no or little punctuation invokes a flat, laconic tone of voice that fits naturally with sarcasm.

That said, the inverse also works: Capitalizing Unimportant Words imposes a certain sense of ironic detachment. Adding (TM) or periods between each word is optional but extra effective. All-caps, however, is generally not sarcastic: there seems to be a contradiction between STRONG FEELING and the appropriate degree of ironic detachment.


Deliberately misspelling words is a sarcasm method that’s especially useful for mocking the argumentation of people who you strongly disagree with. For example this parody anti-feminism twitter account carefully misspells “feminism” a different way in every single tweet — the implication being that women who are anti-feminist are so ill-informed that they can’t even spell the thing they’re arguing against.

Similarly, Birds Right Activist on twitter says-without-saying by deliberately using a combination of misspellings, wrong parts of speech, and omitted words.

Here our rule of opposites doesn’t apply — correct spelling just puts us into Default Mode — but then, I’m not really sure how I’d go about spelling something extra fancy.

Internet slang

Certain uses of internet slang can also add a note of sarcasm, especially the vowelless ones: srs bsns, for example, contains a contradiction — how srs can your bsns really be if you’ve disemvowelled it? Similarly, codeswitching between “you” and “u” can be more intimate, which is sometimes sincere (“i love u” is cuter than “I love you”) but sometimes disingenuous (someone asking “u mad?” might not care deeply about your inner wellbeing). Hashtags as a class are often add disambiguating meta-commentary, such as my friend’s ~*misandry*~ tag or this gem from academia twitter:

And of course, there’s the obvious internet sarcasm indicators which go right out and say it in a backchannel, such as </ sarcasm> and #sarcasm.

Entirely deadpan

You can also just be completely deadpan, with no typographical indicators of sarcasm at all. This is a strategy that works — well, kind of — for The Onion:

Beautiful cinnamon roll too good for this world, too pure

Kitten Thinks of Nothing But Murder All Day

But The Onion has a team of professional writers and editors, plus a reputation for parody. Us mere mortals can sarcasm non-typographically with careful phrasing choices, such as adding too many negatives and emphatics (“I definitely did not just spend half an hour debating the relative merits of Bendandsnap Calldispatch versus Ichabbie. Nope. Not me. Never.”)

So, wtf, English?

The first question that might pop into your head on beholding this gorgeous ironic smorgasbord is “Why?” Why are there so darn many ways of expressing sarcasm? Wouldn’t a simple lightning-bolt exclamation mark have been sufficient? And aren’t some of them contradictory? I mean, you can use more punctuation, or less; no capitals, or extra caps — why aren’t we getting confused?

Well, first of all, I mean, why not? There’s no prize for the language with the least possibilities of self-expression. And in person, we’ve got many kinds of silly voices and goofy facial expressions. So as long as people are understanding them, why not have the broadest possible menu of ways to type sarcasm?

There’s the rub though — it works as long as people are understanding. Empirically, we do, even the contradictions, but as a linguist I want to know why. How do we reasonably-savvy residents of the internet know to interpret all these divers methods as sarcasm, even if we haven’t seen a particular one of them before?

My theory is that involves a linguist named Paul Grice. Grice is linguistically famous for coming up with a basic explanation — a series of maxims — for how it is that we’re able to understand each other in conversation. Grice’s Maxims are phrased as commands, but they’re really a description of the assumptions we’re all making about each other when we’re talking. The core maxim is “Be cooperative,” which breaks down into a few sub-maxims:

Maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. (Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.)

Maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.

Here’s an example of Gricean reasoning: suppose I ask you “Would you like some coffee?” and you reply “Coffee would keep me awake.” If I were a LogikBot4000 (or even Siri), I could complain that you haven’t answered my question, but since I’m assuming your response is relevant (Maxim of Relation), I use my knowledge of your sleeping habits and the current time of day to determine whether you’d want to be kept awake right now, add it to my world knowledge that coffee generally contains caffeine and that caffeine makes people wakeful, and therefore conclude whether or not you want coffee.

But the best part of Gricean Maxims is when people appear to break them, because then we can get ~*fancy*~. For example, replying “Coffee would keep me awake” violates the maxim “Be brief”, since of course a simple “yes” or “no” is shorter. And this means that since you bothered to say the longer one, you must have had a reason to do it. In this case, it’s probably politeness: if you meant “no”, the longer version serves as an excuse; if you meant “yes”, the longer version shows your appreciation.

Gricean Maxims explain a whole lot about subtle communication — why too much negation is as bad as not enough (especially in Night Vale), why numbers are weird sometimes, why over-literal younger siblings are annoying, why no one’s actually confused about hyperbolic “literally” — and they also help with sarcasm. The thing about sarcasm is that you’re creating a clash between your literal meaning and what you actually mean, but your interlocutor has to understand that you’re doing so — otherwise, it’s simply lying. But Gricean Maxims say we assume people are trying to tell the truth, so faced with an obvious literal lie, we look for other reasons why they might have said that. In face-to-face communication we can create this clash using tone of voice or body language: you can say “that’s so interesting” with a bright, enthusiastic tone and direct eye contact to convey sincerity, or with flat intonation and rolled eyes to create a mismatch, a conflict that says, “Don’t take the literal meaning of my words at face value.”

Without in-person features, we need other methods to make sure a reader picks up on our intended mismatch. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like </ sarcasm> or #sarcasm. Sometimes it’s slightly more subtle: “quotation marks” could be sarcasm or an actual quote, ~*~sparkly unicorn punctuation~*~ could indicate true enthusiasm or begrudged, enforced cheerfulness. And sometimes it’s truly subtle indeed: misspelling femnsism or birb’s rights or avoiding capitalization and punctuation altogether isn’t necessarily sarcastic. It could simply mean that you don’t care, you didn’t notice, or you’re heavily steeped in internet vernacular. The interesting part is the variation: when you deviate from how people expect you to type in a given context, your punctuation choices take on a greater significance. But just like you have to know how to construct a grammatical sentence in order to speak fluent doge, creative typographical choices are meaningful because they play against a background of routine, default ones.

Let’s put them all together. Here’s a real twitter conversation to analyze:

Gina Trapani: “Heterosexuality is SO WEIRD.”

“You’re watching the Bachelorette again, aren’t you.”

Anil Dash: @ginatrapani DON’T PIN THAT SHIT ON US

Gina Trapani: @anildash sorry, this has The Straights written all over it

Anil Dash: @ginatrapani #NotAllBreeders

How do we know Trapani and Dash are joking? We can see a couple marks of sarcasm: the period instead of question mark on “aren’t you”, and the first-letter-caps of “The Straights” plus minimalist caps and punctuation elsewhere in the tweet. #NotAllBreeders requires cultural knowledge to creates a mismatch — it’s a play on the #NotAllMen hashtag, but Dash distances himself from the people who use #NotAll hashtags unironically by using an uncomplimentary word for his own orientation.

But lest you think I’m grasping at straws and the average person’s texts or posts are more “can’t be bovvered” and less “sophisticated grasp of typographical nuance,” let’s also look something that’s not quite so off-the-cuff. Here’s a passage from Texts from Jane Eyre. Although the premise is “texts from,” we all know that it wasn’t actually tapped out in real-time on a tiny smartphone keyboard — if Mallory wanted to go back and change a capital here or a question mark there, she darn well could have.





I’m taking a walk

be back for dinner




do you really want me to describe my walk to you


it is fairly cloudy out

looks like rain soon

I hope you’re packed for India already

I’m not going to India with you, St. John

That’s not what these TWO TICKETS TO INDIA say

You know I don’t want to marry you

Why don’t you marry Rosamond instead?

Take her with you

Marry her?


Don’t be ridiculous, I’m attracted to her

That’s disgusting

You are disgusting, Jane

In the textversation between Jane and Rochester, Rochy is in painfully sincere all-caps while Jane is in all-lowercase, while in the one between Jane and St. John, they’re both using mixed, mostly standard capitalization, although Sinjin occasionally bursts into all-caps. It’s clear that Jane is a different person, typographically but also emotionally, when she’s with the two men: she and Rochester are opposites, his exuberance against her reticence; but with St. John she’s more conventional — she does things, like learning Hindi but maybe also using capitals, which she doesn’t really want to. St. John too, is more conventional than he wants to be: he could be a foil for Jane if he let himself type in all caps like he clearly wants to sometimes, but in that case he’d have to admit he’s actually into Rosamund.

And this translates into speech. When I’ve done dramatic readings of Texts from Jane Eyre with friends (which is a perfectly normal thing to do, thank you), all-caps makes us shout, roar, emphasize certain words, or speak with breathless excitement. All-lowercase we render in a flat mutter, a childish sulk (Hamlet), or a wary, restrained, deer-in-headlights voice (Jane). We wouldn’t have nearly as much fun if everything were in Standard Newsreader Voice.

In context, sarcastic typography is part of a larger ecosystem of ways to convey emotional nuance and textual tone of voice — and it’s anything but random. Compared with all these subtle distinctions, a single sarcasm punctuation mark is too blunt an instrument: it defeats the entire saying-without-saying part of sarcasm that makes it engaging in the first place. Using a a percontation point or a SarcMark™ is like explaining why a joke is funny — if you have to bother, you’ve just ruined it anyway.

And no, I see zero irony in coming out against explaining jokes after spending 2500 words explaining how sarcasm works. None whatsoever. Nope.

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