Sarcasm punctuation mark sure to succeed:-!

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Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball, I've learned that a company called Sarcasm, Inc., is marketing a "Sarcasm punctuation mark" called SarcMark, which people are supposed to use to "emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence or message". John Gruber's pitch-perfect assessment:

What a great idea. I'm sure it'll be a huge hit.

According to Wikipedia, the stock of Eastern emoticons includes one conveying "shifty, suspicious: could also be sarcasm": (< . <) And the full list of emoticons gives :-! and ¬¬. I'm not familiar with any of these free options. I think one can begin to get a sense for why there isn't really a dedicated sarcasm emoticon by looking at the "Best examples" that Sarcasm, Inc., provides. Even having been told what the SarcMark is supposed to do to an utterance, I find all those examples confusing. To the extent that I can make sense of them at all, I seem to need to ignore the SarcMark or interpret it as the trusty :-) or ;-), which convey complex, nuanced meanings that are not inherently sarcastic but which can, of course, be used sarcastically.

I didn't purchase the SarcMark, so I probably can't reproduce it here without getting in trouble, hence the free alternative in my title.

Update at about 2:30 PST: In the comments, Ben Zimmer links to his 2007 LL post Punctuation, now with heightened indifference, which has more details and a useful historical dimension.


  1. Sili said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    I've seen "< . <" and "¬¬", but didn't realise they could be interpreted thus.

    Also, when I reading your hed, I thought that "!" was the sarcasm mark in question.

  2. karl said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    Following on the coattails of the success of the irony mark!

  3. Zora said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    I rather like HTML lookalike coding for irony:

    Of course we knew THAT was going to turn out well.

    I suspect, however, that it might not be widely comprehensible to the uninitiated.

  4. Zora said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Dang, the interface stripped the fake HTML codes from my comment. I'll use parents rather than angle brackets.

    (Fe)Of course we knew THAT was going to turn out well.(/Fe)

  5. Craig Russell said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I have long maintained that if we're going to introduce a new piece of punctuation, it should be a "command mark" (alternate name: "imperative mark"), which indicates that a sentence is a command.

    The main argument for it in my mind is that commands are a class of sentence on the same level as declarative and interrogative. But my real reason for wanting it is the creative possibilities, once the command mark is established, of using it and not using it in striking contexts.

    For example, we can punctuate a non-question with a question mark (I guess I want to go on a date with her?) and it adds a nuance to the sentence that wouldn't otherwise be possible in writing. Also you can not put a question mark on a real question and it gives a specific nuance: (Do I want to go on a date with Karen. Hmmm. Let me think.)

    Think of the similar possibilities for written nuance if there were a command mark established:

    You're in love with me
    Just don't hurt me

    As you might suspect, this is a matter to which I have given some thought.

  6. Craig Russell said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    The formatting hid part of my last comment. The last two sentences were supposed to look like this:

    You're in love with me [command mark]
    Just don't hurt me [no command mark when one is expected]

  7. Brett said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    The fist mention I remember seeing of emoticons (circa 1991 in a Boyd's Grab Bag column, probably long before the word "emoticon" was known), five of them were listed, including the smiley :) the wink ;) the frown :( the shock :0 and the sarcasm :/ — the last of which I still occasionally use for that purpose. The other four are readily recognizable, but for some reason, :/ never quite caught on.

  8. Levi Montgomery said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    I was taught (in that stalwart bastion of worthwhile education, the American high school [insert sarcastic little emoti-dude here]), that sentences in what we were told was "the imperative syntax" a) omitted the subject, and b) used the exclamation point:

    Sit down!

    More to the point, once someone buys the "SarcMark" and uses it, doesn't it just become a copyable character? How do they believe they can enforce a copyright or trademark protection on a character in open use?

  9. John Cowan said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    At least the irony mark is in Unicode, unlike the SarkMarque, which is just a stupid font-kludge (and who knows what character code they've appropriated for the purpose; if someone had the font, it would be easy to find out, though).

  10. MelissaJane said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    Zora, thank you. You have just immeasurably enriched my informal written communications.

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    I wrote a bit about other proposed irony/sarcasm marks in a 2007 LL post, "Punctuation, now with heightened indifference!"

  12. Paul said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    I have a friend who proposed (and attempted to spread) bracketing either end of a statement with tildes as a sarcasm mark, e.g.

    Yeah, ~thanks so much~ for that

    Not particularly innovative or unique, but works well and has begun to spread amongst (and a little outside of) our friendship group.

  13. Kutsuwamushi said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    I don't know if I would call those "Eastern" emoticons sarcasm markers, since although they often signal sarcasm, this isn't their primary purpose. They're just one piece of the larger context that determines sarcasm. They mark an emotional state. If that emotional state contradicts the actual words of your message, it might be sarcastic, but it could also not contradict.

    Examples of what I mean:

    My family is planning a road trip. I write, "This is going to be so fun. ¬.¬" The emoticon that indicates my emotional state contrasts with what I'm saying, so we get sarcasm.

    But if my nextdoor neighbors are partying at 2:00AM and I'm telling a friend on IM about this, I might say, "My neighbors are still being noisy. ¬.¬" That statement isn't sarcastic.

    (What emotional state, precisely, is conveyed by "¬.¬," I'm not sure. I'm familiar with it as irritation, lack of enthusiasm, or a mild, irritated rolling of the eyes. It's hard to pin down.)

    So I think that these are fundamentally different than the "SarcMark," and also just not as pointless. They replace information that is lost in text, like intonation and facial expression — things that already have a place in our communication. The SarcMark is just a symbol that says "SARCASTIC." But isn't the point of sarcasm that you're saying one thing while you mean another? It seems like it's defeating the point to then just indicate, "I didn't mean what I just said." It takes the rhetorical/conversational oomph (that's the technical term) out.

    No one needs it.

  14. Dan T. said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    The idea of any punctuation mark, or other character, becoming intellectual property which must be purchased (those guys are using an IP triple play in their attempt to protect their mark, with a registered ® trademark, a © copyright, and a patent pending) is one I very non-sarcastically hope goes nowhere. Just imagine if the inventors of the various letters of the alphabet, and punctuation and mathematical symbols, had asserted rights to their characters since ancient and medieval days, and their descendants continued to hold rights; any font maker would have to pay royalties to a whole bunch of people, and might not be able to use the letter "w" if they didn't license it.

  15. Dan T. said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    And I'll also note that there are numerous requirements regarding platform, software, and font choices for both the sender and recipient of any message that contains the new mark. It's definitely not standard ASCII or Unicode text.

  16. Layra said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    In my experience, both Eastern and Western emoticons exist to convey paralinguistic information about the speaker that would normally be carried by facial expression and tone, while punctuation gives mainly linguistic parsing cues.

    Also, I initially thought that the colon in the title was being used as a punctuation mark on its own and thus that the proposed sarcasm punctuation was -!, which oddly makes sense to me in that it indicates a lack of emphasis on the preceding statement. Perhaps ¬! would be easier to parse.

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    It is still a requirement for a U.S. patent that the device be capable of industrial application, isn't it? Still, should be easy to argue that a sarcasm mark qualifies ~

  18. Pat said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    If you mark something as sarcastic, is it still sarcastic?

  19. Michael Moncur said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    The best part is their video where a superhero uses the SarcMarc to indicate "I'm being an asshole" instead of sarcasm.

  20. pete said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    An exclamation mark in parentheses is already in widespread use in TV subtitles to express sarcasm and/or irony.

  21. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    Subtitles on British TV shows sometimes use (!) to indicate sarcasm, eg:

    – That would be a good idea (!)

  22. Plane said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Wikipedia describes another such attempt, here:

    Also, I saw someone trying to spread the tilde as a sarcasm mark last year. This confused me because, in my circle of friends, I'm used to the ~ mark as imported from the Japanese ~. I have no idea how limited this usage is (very limited?) but I reacted poorly.

    I like all of these about as much as I like the interrobang.

  23. Chargone said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    ¬ is an interesting character. How do you actually Get it?
    I had to copy and paste to get that one…

    personally, i used >_> or <_< for what Kutsuwamushi uses ¬.¬ for.

    of course, i use <__> <_< for something like 'shifty eyes', which can be a certain sort of sarcasm, or possibly 'I'm not exactly being sarcastic, but i Am lying, and you should read it as such'. often accompanied by intervening lines of ………

  24. mollymooly said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    In 1992 there was the attempt at patenting the question comma and the exclamation comma.
    From the linked application:

    An example of usage follows. Readers encountering their first question comma in print may silently remark: 'Clever! funny I never saw one of those before'.

    I'm guessing the vanilla exclamation point was meant to be an exclamation comma, which leads me to conclude that the proposal didn't get very far.

  25. George Amis said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    The interrobang (occasionally interrabang and more rarely interbang), a combination of the question mark and the exclamation point designed to be used where the two might be used together, as in He did what?!?! Was invented in 1962 and had some currency for a few years. See the Wikepedia article.

  26. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    @ Peter Taylor — Google "patent protecting jokes" and pick the entry to savor some of the non-industrial things that have been patented. This link is to an application to patent a method of patenting jokes, a homoproprietary patent. The citation of prior art [0012] is a hoot. The intellectual property legal world is full of people who make a good living by outwitting each other. There's a UK patent on the business plan "buy low, sell high."

  27. Anonymausi said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    The interrobang was not invented in 1962. Here's a random page from a 1921 German book I found on the fleamarket, "Enzio" by Friedrich Huch. Note the profuse interros, bangs and interrobangs. Or even interrobang-bangs, as in Wie‽ Weißt du es nicht‽! — Er ſah ſie mit grauenerfüllten Augen an. The first edition was published 1911 but I don't know about its punctuation. As usual, Googlesnippets isn't helpful.

  28. David said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    Wide-eyed, deadpan earnestness is the way to go.

    I can't wait for my royalties to start rolling in. 8|

  29. Finlay said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    Emoticons are still the best way we have of doing this.

    But last year someone on a board I frequent decided to see if they could spread the use of the ~ as a sarcasm mark…. and it's actually been semi-successful; the resident trolls (mostly but not exclusively) will occasionally post things appended by "~~~~~", and we all have a vague sense of what it actually means…

  30. Army1987 said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    I spent more than a minute watching that *interesting* writing hand animation@

  31. Geoff Nunberg said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    See also my 1997 "Fresh Air" piece, "A Wink is as Good as a Nod," which imagined how writers in the past might have used such marks: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife ; -)".

  32. Amy Stoller said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    A trademark-registered sarcasm mark? What a great idea!

    When it comes to inventing punctuation, I prefer this:

  33. Katherine said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    I posted this on their FB:
    "Assume everything I say has one of these marks after it, because this is such an awesome idea."

  34. Robin Lionheart said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:11 am

    I prefer a recent convention of using a sentence-ending period followed by a tilde (.~) to signify irony, which is easy to type and isn't used for anything else, among other advantages.

    The !Exclamachine type foundry has been putting period-tilde ligature "snark" characters in its typefaces, and promoting this glyph at

  35. Jennifer M said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    The idea of a SarcMark to denote sarcastic meaning also ignores the different types of sarcasm, from friendly and joking to vicious and intentionally hurtful. If the purpose is to avoid ambiguity, even by denoting that sarcasm is present, confusion can't be totally eradicated.
    Besides, it seems that many Internet denizens and emoticon users have been getting on just fine using their own sarcasm symbols; ones that I commonly use, like >>, ¬.¬, XP, and Oo, have enough nuances that I can get my point across, although explaining their meanings to someone who isn't familiar with them usually ends up being a longer, more particular, and more complicated task than a simple emoticon would seem to warrant…

  36. Cecily said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    I don't see why people would pay for something that is more hassle to type and not (yet) as widely understood as a smiley-based emoticon.

  37. outeast said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:00 am

    Of course, there's precedent on the legal side: the Frownie (sad face) is trademarked – and I hope and trust that no one frequenting this site would try using it without licencing it in the approved manner from its owners.

    More seriously… I can't imagine using a sarcasm mark any more than I would mug and roll my eyes and put on a funny voice to indicate sarcasm when speaking. But then I've got myself in trouble for misinterpreted sarcasm/irony on many an occasion, both in meatspace and online.

  38. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    I use the interrobang regularly; indeed my IM client is configured to rewrite "!?" as "‽", which I type in other contexts using the "compose" key (and extra Compose bindings).

    I'm surprised at the number of people who report use of ~ for sarcasm. It seems that you could probably approximate the "SnarkMark" as .̃, which is period followed by a combining tilde accent above, or perhaps •̃.

  39. mae said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    Did anyone mention Victor Borge's Phonetic Pronunciation? You can watch on Youtube —

  40. Stan Carey said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 7:36 am

    Some of the methods described above are interesting, though I can't see them attaining more than niche usage. The same goes for the sarcastic font.

    As for the SarcMark: yes, let us pay for punctuation. I for one can't wait to spend money on a proprietary squiggle that looks like an embryo.

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