Imagine the following conversation:
Person 1: Guess what? I got the job!
Person 2: Congratulations! You must be so colon, hyphen and capital D right now!
Person 1: Yes, and to think that until recently I was really colon, hyhen, open bracket.
Person 2: Never mind, at least the bad times are over.
Did you get it? No? OK, welcome to the wonderful world of the emoticon.
With the advent of the internet and its progeny: Twittter, Facebook, Blogger, MySpace (anyone remember it anymore?) and Youtube, our communication, especially the written one, has undergone a mini-Renaissance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of punctuation marks to express emotions. That is, unless we have an army of emoticons to do the work for us.
Some years ago I wrote - what I thought it was at the time - an innocent e-mail to a group of friends scattered across three continents. The tone of my e-missive was jovial, tongue in cheek and light-hearted. That's why I was very surprised when two of my 'amigos' reacted angrily at my correspondence. I went back to my earlier message and saw nothing wrong with the language used. Then, on closer inspection, I detected signs here and there of words and phrases that could have been misinterpreted. I had fallen into the subjective cyber-trap.
When we speak, our voices, mannerisms and eyes chip in together to create a picture as veritable about us and the message we convey as it can possibly be. When we write that visual image is removed completely; we are at the mercy of our reader's subjective mind and his/her interpretations of our message.
Hence the emoticons. And the punctuations marks, like the ubiquitous exclamation mark. I do it so often, in fact, I overdo it, don't I?!!!
Sometimes, if I am visiting another blog and I read a poem that moves me, or I see a photo or painting I like, I go dodo on exclamation marks, as if by increasing their number I am letting my fellow blogger know how much I love her/his post. If on the other hand I leave a comment that might be (mis)construed as criticism I am quick to attach a :-), or :-D to it, so that no umbrage is taken. Occasionally, I import an emoticon from my very own bank (yes, I am still on credit at that one and no, there's no crunch as far as I know :-D).
However this linguistic phenomenon of using punctuation signs and symbols to complement our written speech is not new. Famously Victor Hugo once sent a telegram to his publisher to find out how his new book was doing. His note read succinctly: '?', to which his publisher replied: '!'. Oh, Twitter, shame on you! 140 characters? You, Misérable!
The main reason why I think that most of us adopt this trend nowadays is that we are, I would like to believe, sensitive readers/bloggers and therefore we take extra precautions when it comes to communicating by e-mail, assessing someone's website or leaving a comment on another blogger's cyber-house. But just as the appropriate use of punctuation marks in the context explained above can be well received, abuse of them can provoke the opposite reaction. Enough to make Jean Valjean want to go back to jail :-).
Next Post: 'Song for a Sunday Summer Sunday', to be published on Sunday 5th July at 10am (GMT)