Emoji Punctuation

By Joe Diorio

Language is constantly evolving. We capitalized the “t” in “telephone” and the “i” in internet when those technologies were new and a bit of a curiosity. Eventually they became an ingrained part of our language, and we did away with the capitalization.

In 2016 when The New York Times decided it would no longer initial cap “internet,” the editors explained it this way: “… we want our rules for spelling, punctuation and usage to be largely invisible. We don’t want quirks or inconsistencies to distract readers from the point of an article.” Others may argue the decision reflected some deep meaning. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Nevertheless, from a lexicography standpoint we may be on the cusp of witnessing a moment of editorial change. That is, the placement of punctuation when used with emojis.

Recently my proofreader extraordinaire, Michelle Marano, posed this question to me, “Does the punctuation at the end of a sentence go before or after an emoji?”

Yes, emojis. A thumbs up emoji replaces “ok” and “yes” or, for that matter, “thumbs up” and a smiling face that’s winking is one’s way of saying “just kidding!” or “we’re both in on the joke, right?” My point here is that emojis don’t always clearly explain themselves.

Gretchen McCulloch (Because Internet. Understanding the New Rules of Language) in 2014 was preparing a talk about emojis for the 2015 South by Southwest tech conference and was concerned that emojis were just a fad and would be passé by the time she made her presentation. No such luck. Nowadays, the news carries stories previewing up and coming emojis. They’re here to stay. By the way, did you know there is no way to say “emoji” in emoji? Give it a try if you want. I’ll wait.

But back to the placement of emojis with respect to punctuation. My dusty reference books offered little insight (I can’t imagine why. One of my favorites is Modern English Usage by Fowler, which was first published in 1926. Oh, wait …). Therefore, this being the 21st century I decided to address this question by turning to this era’s source of knowledge. Yep, I asked Twitter.

I put the question to a poll and received an eye-opening 200-plus responses. Most votes (52.5 percent) said the emoji goes after the punctuation, and 38.7% said before. By the way, 8.8% responded “Huh?” I take that as a sign the subject is still evolving.

In the comments one can see that the subject is taken seriously. “Depends on the punctuation.” Writes @Sweorbdora. “Full stops, question marks, exclamation marks – emoji after the sentence. If the emoji is part of an insertion with parentheses or dashes – inside. Comma – if it clearly belongs to the leading clause before the comma.”

Other comments were equally passionate.

McCulloch says that literature already has a term for the type of gesture emojis represent, and that is an emblem, a distinctive badge or image representing something. Thumbs up represents agreement in some fashion. A barfing emoji (I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Diorio had to go there, right?”) indicates displeasure in an extreme fashion. If an emoji is an emblem, then it is a part of the message being crafted and might – just might – go before the ending punctuation.

Of course, there also is an argument to be made that the period – the full stop, as it is sometimes called – is going away. But I put a word limit on my newsletters so that’s for another time (See? No period)

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

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