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Verbal Energy

Being unironic in the age of the Web

We all know about signaling a joke when writing, especially online, but sometimes we need to signal that we really mean our words at face value.

Sometimes you need to play it straight.

Much has been made of the need for tools to indicate humor, irony, "just kidding," and other states of nonseriousness in our e-mails, texts, and instant messages.

That's why we have emoticons and shorthands like "LOL," right? The Atlantic published an article by Megan Garber a few months ago headed "How to Tell a Joke on the Internet." In it she traced the classic sideways smiley (colon, hyphen, close paren) to a group of Carnegie Mellon University researchers in 1982. Trading quips on an online message board, they needed a way to signal "just kidding."

I'm sure this year's complement of incoming college freshmen includes legions who will have to be told by their Composition 101 instructors that no, a smiley is not a recognized punctuation mark.

The surprise of the article was just how long it took to find the right way to indicate irony typographically – a quest predating the Internet. One attempt at a point d'ironie, in the form of a backward question mark, goes back to the 1840s in France.

And the American writer Ambrose Bierce offered the "snigger point." At the Atlantic's website, it appears as a sideways parenthesis, suspended in the line of type like a tiny hammock anchored between a pair of quotation marks.

But what do you do when you mean your words to be taken at face value? For instance: "Have I made myself clear?"

That's a line it's easy to imagine the late character actor Gale Gordon harrumphing at Lucille Ball, or before her, at Eve Arden, of "Our Miss Brooks" fame. As he said it, it was meant to convey, "I have said what I feel I need to say to put you in your place."

The Free Dictionary explains this idiom with a little parenthetical: "(Indicates anger or dominance.)"

But at a literal level (and admittedly, probably in a calmer tone of voice than Mr. Gordon's characters used), it's not a bad question to ask. An essential lesson in leadership is learning to ensure that your messages get across.

A good way to do that is to get the other person to repeat your message in his or her own words. But the words "Have I made myself clear?" have picked up such baggage that you wouldn't use them to ask the question in writing. You'd ask, "Did that make sense?" or something like that.

This concern with un-irony popped up after I'd had a couple of occasions within the same day to say to people, in effect, "Thank you for sharing." In both cases I meant it at face value. But that expression has come to be used as a general putdown of those who provide Way Too Much Information.

The phrase has been adapted as the title of a movie about ... well, I don't want to be one of those oversharing types myself.

Talk-show host Dick Cavett had an opportunity back in 1971 to show he knew when not to use a set phrase that had long since been co-opted for comedy.

During taping before a live audience, one of his guests keeled over on the couch, and died. (The show never aired.) Wanting to call for help, Mr. Cavett went to the edge of the stage. But he realized that the set phrase for just such an occasion – "Is there a doctor in the house?" – would have sounded like a laugh line.

And so what he asked instead was, "Is there a doctor in the ... audience?"

As a wit like Cavett knows, sometimes you just have to play it straight.

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