Sarcasm Punctuation? Like We Really Need That

Michigan company says SarcMark should be official punctuation mark for sarcasm.

January 17, 2010, 10:33 AM

Jan. 18, 2010— -- Watch out, :-)

Stand aside, j/k.

There's a new kind of punctuation in town and it wants sarcasm for its own.

Launched last week by Washington, Mich.-based Sarcasm, Inc., the SarcMark wants to be the official symbol for sarcasm in electronic communication.

Forget the makeshift emoticons and abbreviations we use now to denote sarcasm, the father-son company behind the SarcMark says "equal rights for sarcasm."

"Questions have the question mark, exclamations have the exclamation point," said Paul Sak, 63, co-founder of SarcMark. "We're promoting the SarcMark as the 21st century's punctuation."

Sak said his son Doug, 34, first suggested the idea eight years ago. Though Paul Sak was skeptical at first, he eventually came around.

In e-mails, text messages and other forms of typed communication, he said people can't hear another's inflection and might miss the sarcasm.

Though some might use smiley faces, electronic winks or j/k (for "just kidding") to avoid confusion, Sak said they're not good enough. Sometimes smiley faces don't show up in text, he added, and do you really want to overload your boss with cutesy emoticons?

"We just feel that if the SarcMark is accepted as the punctuation mark for sarcasm it's a little easier and a little more meaningful," Sak said.

So his son designed the symbol -- a period surrounded by a swirl (somewhat resembling @) -- and the two secured a design patent and trademark for it.

"There was specific criteria," he said. "He wanted it to be the same size and width as other punctuation. ... He wanted something with a period in it, like the question mark and exclamation point."

But here comes the catch: If you want to use the SarcMark, you have to pay up: $1.99 to download the software that enables Windows users to insert the symbol by pressing the "CTRL" key and the "." key.

The software is also available for the BlackBerry, and Sak said versions for Mac and iPhone users are on the way.

So far, Sak said the SarcMark has been downloaded about 600 times and he's hopeful that momentum will continue to build.

Linguist: People Know Their Audience, Use Sarcasm Appropriately

"We are very serious about it being a punctuation mark, but we're having fun with it," he said. "It becomes official when people start using it."

But though some linguists acknowledge that an element of meaning gets lost when communication moves from the vocal to the written, they doubt that the SarcMark is needed to fill the gap.

"When you write, you don't have the extra information channel of intonation," said Amy Weinberg, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland who specializes in technology. But while a symbol might help provide that extra information, she said, "I don't know that we need one designed especially so that you have to buy it."

Previous emoticons succeeded (meaning they were widely adopted) because they were easy and free to create, she said.

She also said that though communicating sarcasm in written communication can be challenging, people compensate for it with extra symbols or by skipping the tone altogether.

"You know your audience," she said. "I'm not going to say something that I mean in a sarcastic way without clearly indicating that."

Scott E. Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist and the man considered the "father of the smiley face," has his own doubts about the SarcMark.

"I don't see what it does that the good ol' smiley face doesn't do, and the one I invented is free," he said.

On Sept. 19, 1982, he wrote an e-mail proposing that a sideways smiley face :-) be "used in joke matters."

"In electronic communication, it's very useful to say 'I'm only kidding,'" he said. If you write satirical prose, in the style of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, he said, "Half the fun is not knowing if they're serious or not."

But in electronic communication, the context is very different. Not everyone has the literary skill to pull it off successfully and on message boards, for example, one misread sarcastic note can set off a distracting deluge of disgruntled messages.

"You just send a note with a sarcastic wisecrack and it can really start a fight," he said. "I think this guy got one thing right. It's useful to have a sarcasm mark, but I don't think we need a new font convention for that."

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