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You may have encountered odd character sequences like :-) in e-mail messages, newsgroup posts, or online forums. Here's some information about what they are, what they mean, and why some people think they're a good or bad idea.

If you're happy and you know it, type a :-) !

One of the problems with online communication is the lack of facial expressions or body language which, in face to face communications, often reveals just as much information as the actual words said. It can be hard to tell in an electronic message whether the writer is serious, kidding around, being facetious or ironic, having fun, or getting angry. Serious misunderstandings can result from this, sometimes kicking off one of the notorious Internet Flame Wars.

One attempt to solve this problem was the invention of emoticons, or "smileys". This came about in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University, as recounted here. (It happens that I was a freshman at CMU at that time, but I was unaware of the smiley being invented when it happened... I was off on the undergrad Computation Center computers being a clueless newbie [yes, I did go through that phase, though it was over 20 years ago!] while the message thread that introduced this device was on the research-oriented Computer Science systems.) There are reports of similar schemes being concocted on local computer systems as far back as the 1970s, but the CMU "smiley" was the one that caught on.

The original emoticons were :-) and :-( . To understand what they mean, rotate your monitor 90 degrees to the right, or your head 90 degrees to the left, and you'll see that they look like very crude renditions of somebody smiling (in the first one) or frowning (in the second one), with the ":" representing the eyes, the "-" the nose, and the parentheses the mouth. Emoticons are sometimes referred to as "smileys", though this name more properly refers only to the ones that include a smiling face.

The usage is that a writer will insert :-) to indicate "I'm really just kidding around a little... don't take this too seriously", or :-( to say "I'm getting peeved about this". A number of other emoticons have developed, but they're not as commonly used or as well understood. (See links below for some tables of them.) Noseless variants of the two original emoticons, :) and :( , can be seen sometimes, as well as versions depicting somebody wearing glasses, B-) and B-( .

Pros and Cons of Emoticons

There are some who really like emoticons, and some who really hate them. This division doesn't cut cleanly between geeks and non-geeks; although the stereotype is that these are "geeky" things, some old-time computer buffs think emoticons are silly and pointless, while some "newbies" take to them enthusiastically when they discover them.

Supporters say that they provide useful "punctuation" to indicate emotional content which can be unclear from the words alone. Some see them as an opportunity to show personality and creativity, sometimes going to great lengths to come up with exotic emoticons like :-)~~(-: (a French kiss). Others stick to a few tried-and-true emoticons that are widely understood, thinking that they deserve to be considered legitimate punctuation (making them probably the first new punctuation marks added to the English language in centuries).

On the other hand, opponents find them to be annoying and say that there would be no need for them if writers expressed themselves better in the first place. Written language has managed to serve the function of communication for millennia despite its lack of facial expression and body language; the writer just needs to take care to make his or her emotional state apparent if this is relevant to the message. "That's funny!" or "That's not funny." gives a clearer indication of what the writer feels than any smiley or frowney. Computer geeks should learn to write English, not the bizarre geekspeak that's hard for "normal" people to follow. Anyway, emoticons give some online forum participants "license" to say hurtful, insensitive things and then "make it OK" by ending them with a smiley, like it's all a cute joke. Is this really such a good thing to encourage?

As in most cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Emoticons can certainly be abused or overused, just like older and more traditional forms of punctuation such as the exclamation point. If you find yourself sticking one in every paragraph of your online writing, you're using them way too much. If you use one in every message, you're probably using them too much. However, when used sparingly in appropriate places, a smiley or frowney can add feeling to a message, and make misunderstandings less likely in situations where people aren't sure whether you're serious or not. I use them once in a while myself. But you should probably avoid the more exotic and bizarre emoticons unless the purpose of your messages is to show off your creativity in ASCII art; stick to the familiar smiley and frowney in normal cases where the aim is communication.

Replacing Emoticons with Graphics

There's a trend these days for mail and news readers, Web forums, and online chat programs to display emoticons as graphical icons instead of their plain-ASCII text characters. The Mozilla mail/news program does this with emoticons it recognizes within messages it's displaying, for instance replacing the smiley, :-) , with a smiley-face graphic like this: [smiley icon]. (You can, however, configure it not to do this if you so desire.) In addition, some programs also recognize traditional markers of emphasis like surrounding words with asterisks or underscores (*this* and _that_) and replace them with real boldfaced or underscored presentation.

I've got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, if emoticons are indeed legitimate new punctuation marks, then each one is an abstract entity in its own right, which can legitimately have various different presentational appearances. "Regular" characters, such as punctuation marks and letters, can have different styles and shapes known as "glyphs" to those who discuss character sets and their representations. For instance, the capital letter "A" can have these shapes:

[Image: Variant Letters]

It can also be expressed by a voice synthesizer saying "Ayyyyy!" or by a tactile pattern in Braille. So why shouldn't the emoticons have a variety of textual or graphical renditions, while still maintaining their identity as distinct entities?

However, there's a problem. Emoticons, in plain-text messages, are sequences of multiple characters. If a reader program interprets a sequence of multiple characters as a single entity for the purpose of choosing an appropriate display for it, that amounts to it being treated as something similar to a markup tag. Of course, when rendering plain text, a program has no business recognizing and rendering markup tags of any sort; that's just what causes so much grief, for instance, when AOL does it (as recounted in another article in this site). One of the problems with a program finding and rendering emoticons is that it can sometimes be mistaken; a sequence of text might have something that resembles an emoticon but really isn't, like this: I won't tolerate any of my children getting any grades lower than a B (that includes a B-). The "B-" grade at the end of a parenthetic expression produces an unintended smiley-with-glasses, so a reader program might improperly render it with a graphic. Even intended emoticons might cause problems if given variant renderings, if the message happens to be discussing emoticons as ASCII art.

The most logical solution, from the standpoint of those who regard emoticons as legitimate punctuation, is to get them added to the character set as single characters. (See my article on character sets.) And, in fact, there are some characters in the Unicode set that can serve the function of selected emoticons: Character #9785 (hex 2639) is a White Frowning Face, #9786 (hex 263A) is a White Smiling Face, and #9787 (hex 263B) is a Black Smiling Face. (No Black Frowning Face seems to exist; is that racist?) Software support for such characters may not be universal, however; let's see if they work in your browser: ☹☺☻


Some people prefer cryptic initialisms over ASCII art for expressing online emotions and other things that they don't wish to express in plain English sentences. (These abbreviations are sometimes mistakenly called "acronyms", but that properly refers only to initials that are pronounced as words, like "NATO".) Here are a few of the ones you might encounter:

AFAIC As far as I'm concerned
AFAICT As far as I can tell
A/S/L Age/Sex/Location (asked in chat rooms)
BCNU Be seeing you
BRB Be right back
FOAD F*** off and die
*g* Grin
GD&R Grinning, ducking, and running
HAND Have a nice day
IANAL I am not a lawyer
ICYMI In case you missed it
LL&P Live long and prosper
LOL Laughing out loud
ROFL Rolling on floor laughing
TIL Things I learned
TTFN Ta ta for now
YMMV Your mileage may vary

Final Notes

When a lawsuit was filed during the introduction of new top level domains in 2001 to prevent the original plan for releasing .biz names on the grounds of it constituting an illegal lottery, the plaintiff was named Smiley. The case, therefore, was known to most observers as "the Smiley case". No emoticons were involved, however! :-)

Speaking of legal stuff, Cingular is attempting to patent the concept of providing keys for the entry of emoticons on mobile devices. If approved, this will join a bunch of really silly patents that have granted proprietary rights over blatantly obvious and non-novel things.


Next: Many people end their messages with signature blocks. What are the standards and traditions about them?

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This page was first created 30 May 2003, and was last modified 28 Dec 2014.
Copyright © 2003-2014 by Daniel R. Tobias. All rights reserved.