The cyberpragmatics of bounding asterisks

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On Daring Fireball, John Gruber noticed something interesting about David Pogue's New York Times review of the Surface Pro: what he calls "the use of bounding asterisks for emphasis around the coughs." Pogue wrote:

For decades, Microsoft has subsisted on the milk of its two cash cows: Windows and Office. The company’s occasional ventures into hardware generally haven’t ended well: (*cough*) Zune, Kin Phone, Spot Watch (*cough*).

And the asterisks weren't just in the online version of the Times article. Here it is in print (via Aaron Pressman):

By "emphasis" Gruber explains that he means "informing the reader of a shift in style or voice," likening the use of bounding asterisks to "how foreign words are italicized in many publications and books." He figured it was an "Internet-ism," tracing its use to the need for a plain-text substitution for italicization or bolding.

But David Friedman pointed out on Twitter that one could use the Google Books Ngram Viewer to search for such strings as *cough* and *sigh*, because the Ngram corpus tokenizes asterisks along with other punctuation. A search reveals *cough* on the rise from around 1990 (fitting Gruber's impression of the convention as an Internet-ism), but *sigh* actually starts showing up in the mid-'60s. Friedman chalked up the early use of *sigh* to the comic strip "Peanuts." Charles Schulz made frequent use of sigh as an exclamation, especially by Charlie Brown, with the word bounded by star-shaped symbols (not quite asterisks).

Let's take a look at the prehistory of *cough*-style asterisking in comic strips, and the more recent usage as a form of "cyberpragmatics."

In comic strips of the early to mid-20th century, cartoonists often needed to represent expressive non-verbal noises in the characters' speech balloons. This was typically done with the use of such words as sob, sniff, cough, hack, wheeze, gasp, gulp, choke, and gag. Such interjections came to be used as a form of onomatopoeia, alongside more directly onomatopoetic expressions like ahem, ugh, ooh, whew, and zzz. When they appeared in the comics, they typically followed the convention one would find in other print sources of the era: bounding by parentheses. Some examples (click images to embiggen):

(sniff) in "Mutt and Jeff" (6/8/1920)

(cough) in "Mutt and Jeff" (2/1/1936)

(sigh) in "Smitty" (4/17/1937)

(sigh!!) in "Li'l Abner" (6/9/1944)

(gasp!) and (choke!) in "Abbie an' Slats" (4/24/1946)

(gulp) and (cough, cough) in "Smilin' Jack" (11/30/1947)

(There's also a (gasp!) from "Superman" in my 2007 Language Log post on "Exhausted grammar.")

Sometimes other bracketing delimiters were used. Comic strips have been getting creative with typography since the early days — consider the rise of cursing characters or "obscenicons" (aka "grawlixes"), which I've traced back to 1902. The earliest example I've found so far of "Peanuts"-style starburst characters is in this "Li'l Abner" strip from Nov. 22, 1935, where they appear around gulp!:

Perhaps Schulz borrowed this stylization from "Li'l Abner." Whatever the source, he began using it in "Peanuts" early on — here it is from Nov. 26, 1951, about a year after the strip premiered:

(That's an appreciative sigh from Schroeder, as opposed to the world-weary sigh that Charlie Brown would come to be known for.)

Using Michael Yingling's "Calvin and Hobbes" search engine (which allows punctuation searches), we can see that Bill Watterson carried on the Schulzian tradition, with similar starburst characters (around sniff, gasp, sob, sighhh, gulp, etc.).

Now let's skip ahead to Internet usage. Gruber characterized the use of bounding asterisks in online communication as a form of emphasis, but pragmatically it's a bit more complex than that. True, bounding asterisks can emphasize a word or words in plain-text messages where italics and bolding are unavailable, but the legacy of the comic strips points in another direction — the use of bounding asterisks to signal non-verbal noises or actions as a kind of self-describing stage direction.

Francisco Yus nicely summarizes this type of asterisk use in his book Cyberpragmatics: Internet-Mediated Communication in Context (John Benjamins, 2011, p. 173):

Autonomous stage direction. It occurs when the user's nonverbal behaviour is expressed with its closest translation, normally in one or two words, and framed by asterisks that separate it for the verbal content that they accompany. It is defined by Herring (forthcoming) as "predications that can function alone as complete performative utterances." An example is quoted below:

(20) What you're saying is funny *laugh*

In general, users resort to typical terms that once can find in a dictionary as prototypical of the equivalent nonverbal behaviour. Therefore, they vary inter-culturally depending on the lexical repertoire that languages offer for the description of nonverbal behaviour.

(The cited source is: Herring, Susan C. "Grammar and electronic communication." In The Encyclopledia of Applied Linguistics, Carol A. Chapelle (ed.), Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.)

What's fascinating about these asterisked stage directions is that they have moved well beyond the onomatopoetic coughs, gulps, and sighs of the comic strips into more complex actions stated in the third person, such as *jumps up and down*. In an email, Jason Treit describes the performative nature of these forms:

They set up an active construction where the writer switches to third person, as if subjecting themselves to the verb or verb phrase in the moment of typing it. Usually there's even subject-verb agreement with the third person pronoun: think *hangs upside down like a bat*.

Old Facebook status updates or the /me command in IRC [Internet Relay Chat] work on the same valence.

The origins of such usage likely can be found in text-based role-playing games in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons/Domains), which were superseded by IRC and instant-messaging interfaces. As one "Role Play Manual of Style" explains, "Actions are enclosed in asterisks and written in third person perspective." But this type of asterisking has thoroughly infected Usenet posts, blog comments, tweets, and anywhere else online that people feel the need to describe real-world actions in a virtual space.

So, by giving yourself your own stage directions enclosed in asterisks, you treat your own words as lines in a play, and then step outside of your character to give the perspective of the playwright in the play you're acting in. It's all so meta. If Erving Goffman were alive, he'd love this stuff.

[Update: John Gruber responds here.]


  1. Krista said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

    Lovely post! Very intriguing. I enjoy pondering such things. It really does speak to the changed perception of what acting in life is. *shakes head*

  2. Faldone said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    Then there's the faux html end tags often used to give extra information, e.g., {/pedantic explanation}. Note use of { and } rather then the less than and greater than signs that would probably have been disappeared by the LL comment garbler.

    [(bgz) You can get around the garbling by using the &lt; and &gt; codes, like so: < >]

  3. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    These enclosing asterisks seem very similar to the breath marks used American comics (see

  4. Zizoz said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    When I read it it seemed odd to me that Pogue used both parentheses and asterisks; I thought one or the other would be sufficient. I suppose they do serve slightly different purposes, though.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    Speaking of the pragmatics of punctuation…

  6. blahedo said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    I regularly use bounding asterisks when I want to use italics but the medium doesn't allow it (or sometimes even when it *does* allow it); in my case this is definitely a habit learned from the internet.

    One thing I've noticed, though, is that in a lot of common web fonts, unless they're in a fairly large size, the asterisks are easily mistaken for quotation marks (the size is the same and their glyphs are small enough in these fonts to just register as a smudge either way). I first started noticing this when I wrote letters to the editor of my local paper and they would make an incorrection to quotation marks before publishing them (rather than just making them italic, which would have been fine). I thought it made me look borderline illiterate, like I don't know what a quotation mark was for. (Or, perhaps that I was using scare quotes, giving the message a radically different meaning.) It's frustrating. </firstworldproblem>

  7. H said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    I think they may indicate actual physical actions or, quite often, private emotions which are almost an internal monologue.

  8. Cameron said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

    @blahedo: There are markup conventions that actually use * .. * to specify italics. An example of a relatively current one is Fountain:

  9. Simon Wright said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    The Usenet markup conventions I first encountered were *bold*, _underline_ (or _italics_), and :action:. The first two are still supported by the Emacs GNUS newsreader; the last would be used as, for example, :blush: when admitting a silly mistake.

    [(bgz) And Google (in Google+ and Gchat) automatically converts bracketing asterisks into bolding, viz.: ]

  10. Josh Renaud said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    This use of symbols was definitely prevalent on bulletin board systems (BBSes), where messages were usually stored as plain text. Folks routinely used asterisks around words for emphasis, or even underscores around words to substitute for underlining.

  11. Dan Shockley said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    The usage of asterisk to indicate a non-verbal action is exactly what I remembered from the early 90's when I was reading the Gruber's post on Not just emphasis, but action. And that's how David Pogue used them in his article.

    Takes me back. :-)

  12. Michael said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    These “stage direction” constructions have also found their way into the German language, originally thanks to the translation of English comics. What I find particularly interesting is that a new verb form, the Inflektiv, has been created for them, perhaps in order to emulate the bare infinitive style from the English sources. The Inflektiv is formed by dropping the -(e)n ending from the infinitive, so “sigh” becomes „seufz“ (instead of „seufzen“). This form apparently didn’t exist at all before the 20th century and is now commonplace on the Internet (where they are also usually enclosed in asterisks).

  13. Chandra said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    @Faldone – I actually see the faux-html-tag thing done most often with just the slash, and no brackets, pointy or otherwise. /knowitall

    Not that I ever do either of these things myself. *shifty eyes*

  14. Alexander Pensky said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    This is all very interesting, but the use of *cough* in the original Pogue example means something different. It's not the word *cough* bracketed by asterisks, it's an entire phrase (a list of products) bracketed by TWO instances of *cough*. (Or should I say "*two*" instances?) This is a specific idiom, meant to suggest that the speaker wants to say a word or phrase without appearing to say it, so they say it while simultaneously coughing. In real life it only works for a single word, but in writing, it can be applied to an uncoughably long phrase, if the writer assumes the reader is familiar with the idiom.

    Does anyone know where in pop culture this idiom originally started? A particular movie or TV show?

  15. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

    Old tools find new uses. Another internet use for the asterisk is in self-correction, in chat environments where what one previously entered is not editable; for example:
    <MrPerson> I had mispelled "illustrious".
    <MrPerson> *misspelled

    In another one I like, in certain crowds, regular expressions have caught on for much the same function:
    <MrPerson> I had mispelled "illustrious".
    <MrPerson> s/mispelled/misspelled/
    (or just s/sp/ssp/)

    Once in a while – among a group of language-geek types I talk to – I also see phonological rule notation applied to this purpose.
    <MrPerson> I had mispelled "illustrious".
    <MrPerson> 0 > s / s_p

  16. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb, your link (to an entry about "quasiquotes") is something that I'm pretty sure has been discussed here in the past in one or more of Mark's posts about journalistic accuracy.

    I know that I wish there were a widely recognized paraphrase mark. *sigh*

    It's sort of impressive how often the New York Times falls into the uncanny valley of 'net culture.

  17. naddy said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    A big question is, if you translate *sigh*, *cough*, etc into a language with more verb inflection than English, what verb form do you choose? In German, the translation of American comic strips has produced the inflective for this purpose, a bare stem without the infinitive ending or any other inflection, something you won't find in a traditional grammar. As in English, this became popular on Usenet, IRC, etc, and spread with the Internet.

    Interestingly, the inflective is also used for those self-directed stage directions where English falls back on the third person singular, i.e., verb phrases with objects etc.

    (For those who can read German:

  18. MikeE said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Perhaps the German form should be called something like "noninflective" in English (since inflected = flektiert).
    This form is also sometimes (humorously) called the "Erikativ", after Erika Fuchs, the German Disney comic translator.

    *seufz* (sigh).
    *schnellwegduck* (gd&r)

  19. Robert Coren said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    My personal online convention for substitute-italics is to use asterisks for emphasis ("what I *really* meant was…") and underscores for titles, foreign words, etc. ("Have you read _The Lord of the Rings_?"). I don't know if I picked this distinction up from others, or just developed it for my own use as seeming logical.

  20. Svafa said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    Common ones I've seen are *bold*, _underline_, and /italics/. With some history in MUDs and roleplaying in MMOs, a number of other conventions are also common, but don't seem to have gained as much popularity. Things like ((out-of-character)), [action/emotion], and /emote. This last is likely where the /knowitall example Chandra mentions is derived. There's always the faux markup tags as well, though faux may be a poor description as they're (usually) perfectly fine for xml.

  21. William Steed said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    Typically the stage instruction asterisks are in 3rd person, just as in stage direction. *throws glitter*

    That said, although it uses the language from stage directions, it's typically used, in my experience as a performative substitute, adding a role-playing or active element to an otherwise purely conversational medium.

    This thread has examples of a few different sorts. In post 12, a substitute for a non-linguistic utterance **shudder**. In post 15, a stage direction showing action, *turns about*. In post 18, posting a picture of cheese substitutes for the otherwise impossible action of presenting actual cheese. The whole thread is a virtual party with actions, non-linguistic utterances, food and non-player characters. (The discussion of microculture in-jokes is another topic)

  22. Kip W said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

    I remember seeing *sigh* used in print back in the days of amateur press associations. The instance I'm thinking of would have been in Slanapa, around 1982, probably nicked from Peanuts or something else like the comic strip examples given.

  23. Steve said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

    I think by focusing on action words and sound effects as commonly used in comics, you're missing a bigger phenomenon rooted in the the limitations of the typewriter.

    An n-gram search for verbs and adverbs commonly emphasized when making a point shows that the *word* idiom has seen a use within an order of magnitude of its current use since the beginning of the Google corpus.*does*%5D%2C%5B*very*%5D%2C%5B*sigh*%5D%2C%5B*cough*%5D&year_start=1900&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=5&share=

  24. Steve said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    Sorry. I meant to add *is* to my n-gram search, which is more or less a straight line across the 1900s with even higher frequency than *sigh* enjoys today.

  25. David said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    Could there be a connection to the /* comments */ in standard C? That having been the standard language of computer geeks for many years, it could have lent its commenting convention to Usenet and the Web.

  26. Theophylact said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

    Nowadays, one often sees pseudo-HTML versions: {snark}har-de-har-har{/snark} (-brackets won't display here).

  27. Christopher Thompson said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

    I see the onomatopoetic and stage direction uses of asterisks. But in this case I think what is happening is a little beyond "informing the reader of a shift in style or voice." It is fairly common for words to be actually spoken as a cough when the speaker wants them to be a kind of backhanded aside. The coughed word is being used as a profanity of sorts. In this example, any technophile would consider the word Zune to be synonymous with failure. Much as one might cough "loser" or some other disparaging term under ones breath.

    The beginning and closing (*cough*) reminds be of how pseudo-HTML tags like are sometimes use to enclose text to clarify its intent. I read the sentence in the article with all of the words being coughed under ones breath as aspersions on Microsoft's hardware ventures.

  28. maidhc said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 2:10 am

    The character Bluebottle in The Goon Show was famous for reading his stage directions out loud. Apparently Peter Sellers started doing it as a joke. I became curious how it was written down, and as I have a copy of some of the scripts I went to check it out.

    Normally the stage directions are in parentheses:

    CRUN (approaching) Ahh Mr Sniklecrum . . .

    But Bluebottle's are written into the script:

    BLUEBOTTLE I heard you call my Capatain – I heard my Captain call – waits for audience applause – not a sausage – puts on I don't care expression as done by Aneurin Bevan at Blackpool Conservative Rally.

    [from The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (of Bexhill-on-Sea), October 1954]

  29. Pete Mitchell said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 2:13 am

    @Alexander Pensky Not sure where it started, but I remember it being popularized by the movie "Top Gun". In the scene where Maverick and Goose first find out that Kelly McGillis's character Charlie will be one of their instructors, she directs them to describe their encounter with a MIG. When Maverick says that he and Goose were able to see the enemy MIG pilot even though they were directly above him because they were "inverted", Iceman exclaims: " *cough* Bullshit! *cough* ".

  30. maidhc said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 2:25 am

    But in The Affair of the Lone Banana, from the same month, they are parenthesized:

    BLUEBOTTLE (declaim) Where that dirty big saw hitted my nut! You rotten nut-hitting swine you! (Does body racked with sobs pose – as done by Robert Newton after seeing income tax returns.)

    Possibly there were different typists.

  31. David Morris said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    I was thinking about the Goon Show in this connection!

    Some of the sites I frequent have editing tools above the text panels, so I use them. Some sites allow html coding for emphasis, but typing asterices is simply quicker.

    *thinks* Is 'asterices' the correct plural? I'd never thought about it before.

    I'd love to do an in-depth study Spike Milligan's use of English Goon Show scripts (and others). I noticed over-regularised "hitted" in the previous comment. Bluebottle also got "deaded" a lot – several decades before South Park killed Kenny on a regular basis.

  32. Barney said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 5:05 am

    @Cameron, @blahedo, One of the best known markup languages that use asterisks for emphasis is Markdown, which was devised by John Grubber, author of Daring Fireball.

  33. Mykhailo said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 6:23 am

    Chandra: " I actually see the faux-html-tag thing done most often with just the slash, and no brackets, pointy or otherwise. /knowitall"

    My theory is that /slashcommentary originated as a play on the way instructions are denoted in the TeX typesetting system (although, in TeX, backslashes are used. Maybe the people who originated this started out using backslashes, but the custom switched to forward slashes as the usage moved outside of the realm of people who actually know what TeX/LaTeX are, and forwards slashes seemed more natural because of URLs).

  34. Davis X. Machina said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    @ naddy "A big question is, if you translate *sigh*, *cough*, etc into a language with more verb inflection than English, what verb form do you choose?"

    Re the internet and (re)-created verb forms…

    I've been using the internet "Fail" as an example to teach Latin students the idea of the supine — a verb form, though unmarked for tense, voice, etc, e.g., and clearly also some sort of a noun, because it is modified by adjectives (epic fail) Is this similar to the German Inflectiv. And no one puts "Failure" on a jpeg and sens it to

    "Win" seems to be developing in a similar way ("Full of win".)

    Have both languages re-invented the IE wheel?

  35. John de Jong said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    It's funny: my BBS upbringing used angle brackets for all their emotes.

    <g> for *grin* and all that.

  36. glitch said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    I would find the initial example perfectly normal if it just said *cough*, but in fact it says (*cough*) – the added parentheses seem strange to me. Are the parentheses perhaps a concession to a perceived audience that may not be familiar with this particular use of asterisks?

  37. Dan M. said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    I actually misacquired this usage and still haven't trained myself to use the standard third-person inflection. I instead always right these as imperative (*raise hand* instead of *raises hand*) because I thought the syntax was the same as you used in Zork when having your avatar do something.

  38. maidhc said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    (* *) are comments in some programming languages (Modula, I think).

  39. Andy Averill said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

    Bounding asterisks — OK, I get it now. I was picturing them bounding across a field.

  40. Bob Ladd said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    Italian has not come up with something like the German Inflektiv – instead, Italian comics frequently use English words like gulp and sigh, untranslated, and probably often pronounced as if they were Italian. This usage predates the rapid recent spread of English among people of comic-reading age. Perhaps for that reason, there seem to be only a few of these, whereas the German Inflektiv is incredibly productive.

  41. J Mankin said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    I was writing script-style stories in notebooks with school friends in the late '90s/early 00s using asterisks like this for actions, sometimes long extended descriptions of actions. I believe we learned it from messageboard-based role-playing games and adapted it for our own use on paper. I remember very clearly realizing that I'd been spending too much time online when I was writing in one of these notebooks and accidentally wrote a small superscripted 8 instead of an asterisk–a typing error in writing. I suppose I just forgot to press "Shift" in my head…

  42. David Morris said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:06 am

    A friend of mine has just managed expressive asterisks quasi in a foreign language in a Facebook post (and later in the same post emphatic asterisks):

    "[Friend 1] the traffic today is almost intolerable …
    [Friend 2] Oh honey! You poor thing! Is it because of the trackwork? [rail repairs which shut down all the trains in the city centre, resulting in extra road traffic]
    [Friend 1] It must be… *le sigh* "

  43. Lynne said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    As I read this NYT passage I 'heard' the bracketed phrase in what I will now call the 'Top Gun Cough'.

    After reading @Alexander Pensky I was thinking back as far as maybe Seinfeld, but I think @Pete Mitchell has got it.

    I would probably have dozens of chat logs where my friends have used it that way. The logs mirror a *cough* bullshit *cough* verbal style.

  44. Warsaw Will said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    I can't see that anyone's mentioned it, but what stood out for me was the capital letter after the comma in the headline. And it's in both the print and online editions. Strange.

  45. Lauren Collister said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

    Excellent post, it's fascinating to learn about the history of this use of *. I've been interested in the uses of * for a long time, and even wrote a short squib about the use of * as a repair morpheme in my dissertation data.
    I wish I'd had this robust discussion of the history of * when I wrote that!

  46. Rodger C said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    Well, Every Word In The Headline Has a Capital, Except For Some Reason The Word a.

  47. Wim Scherpenisse said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    @naddy For the record, in Dutch it's exactly the same as in German: verb stem without any ending. (In Dutch, this is identical to the inflected form for the 1st person singular as well as the imperative.)

  48. Faldone said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    @Rodger C: That's Because There Are No Prepositions, Conjunctions, or Definite Articles in the Headline.

  49. Warsaw Will said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    @Roger C and Faldone. Thanks, I'd missed that. British newspapers don't seem to use this sort of capitalisation, so I guess I'm just not used to seeing it punctuated. And you're quite right about the grammar, Faldone – these are two headlines from today's NYT:

    After Ron Paul, Then What?
    Fuel Is Fast, but Fealty Is Forever

  50. V said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    Bulgarian has something similar to the German, but I think it predates the Internet, although I think it's still pretty recent.

  51. Azimuth said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

    "I know that I wish there were a widely recognized paraphrase mark. *sigh*"

    I was just reading someone else who said, like, the same thing.

  52. Lyvvie said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    It's like my life was just stalked. I was a voracious reader of Peanuts as a kid, then Calvin and Hobbes. I was in IRC, Newsnet and the Vampire MUDs and I'm a habitual "splatter" which is what we called Asterisks. I find many modern text editors interpret ** comments
    as needing bold, which is completely wrong. It's an aside not to overshadow the main text. It's rather annoying. *feels weird adding splat for the sake of splat*

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