This article appeared in the September 23, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Can irony really be conveyed with punctuation?

Over the centuries, symbols like these have been used to express irony in the written word.
Casey Fedde
Copy Desk Editor

Punctuation only gets the spotlight when it misses the mark. Writers rely on punctuation to communicate important cues to readers. Without it, writers risk rambling, misplacing a subject’s prized possession, or even facing a lawsuit, as was the situation in 2014 for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine over a missing Oxford comma. So, in honor of National Punctuation Day on Sept. 24, let’s explore some forgotten punctuation. 

For centuries, wordsmiths have demanded punctuation marks that would convey irony and sarcasm in written text, much like verbal intonation or facial expressions do in spoken conversation. But tipping off readers to phrases with meanings beyond – or even opposite to – what is written has proved challenging.

In the mid-1600s, British philosopher John Wilkins penned the first irony mark, an upside-down exclamation point appropriately resembling a lowercase “i,” which “both hints at the im­plied irony and sug­gests the in­ver­sion of its mean­ing,” writes Keith Houston in “Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.” 

Later, around 1900, French poet Alcanter de Brahm introduced a whiplike backward question mark (⸮) at the start of sentences as a warning to readers that a change of tone followed. But this point d’ironie, or irony point, may have been a step too far, as its placement spoiled the surprise. 

By the 2000s, there was a heightened demand for conveying irony and sarcasm in writing. Enter the snark mark. The list of ironists is hard to pin down, but Slate’s Josh Greenman resurrected the upside-down exclamation point (¡), and typographer Choz Cunningham, among others, suggested using a period followed by a tilde to tell readers that a sentence should be read beyond its literal meaning. The .~ had potential because it was easily rendered by typographers – unlike the irony marks of yore, which may explain their absence today.

All this is to say that punctuation has its purpose. It demands respect, proper implementation, and praise. It’s just too bad we don’t have any current forms of snark marks. : )

This article appeared in the September 23, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 09/23 edition
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