How Do You Punctuate Around Emoticons and Emoji?

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Emoticons are made of punctuation, but do they count as punctuation themselves? Should you punctuate around them? What about emoji? Do they count as punctuation or should you punctuate around them, too?

Let's explore our options:

1. Punctuate afterwards.

This seems like the most intuitive option, but it often looks awkward:

2. Punctuate before.

Okay, what if we just punctuated before the emoticon or emoji? This makes some of the examples better:

But before-punctuation makes other examples much worse, or even changes their meaning:

And how would you even go about punctuating "before" the emoticons in "my favourite emoticons are :D, :P, and :)."?

3. Don't punctuate at all.

Emoticons are made up of punctuation marks, and emoji are at least on the "special characters" set of the keyboard. Perhaps they're sufficient by themselves, without other punctuation? Let's take a look:

This doesn't have as many obviously weird examples as either of our punctuated options (the lack of close parenthesis and list commas bug me a bit, though), but it also feels like it's lacking in meaning—sure, I could say most of these, but if I really wanted to include four exclamation marks, I think I'd feel bereft at having to ditch them all.

4. Hybrid system.

Perhaps there isn't just one way to punctuate emoticons and emoji. Sometimes, you really do need punctuation—using just the opening half of a pair of parentheses looks pretty odd, for example. And omitting a question mark invokes a particular informal, flat style, which you might not be aiming for. Plus, of course, you don't want to get people confused between "you're on fire!" and "you're on! *flame emoji*". So in that case, do your best to avoid confusion: for example, I sometimes "upgrade" a :) to a :D so that it's clear that the following ) is closing the parentheses rather than just emphatic smiling — (this :D) not (this :)).

But that tiny hanging period? Those exclamation marks or question marks? They look weird, especially after an emoji, so I'd omit them or shove them next to the words, depending on the effect I'm looking for. If you're writing a more ambitious emoji-only text like Emoji Dick, you may want to use punctuation around your emoji for the same reason that we use punctuation in any connected text.

The thing is, by the time you're using emoji or emoticons, you're not exactly writing a particularly formal document, so this is exactly the time to just go with your own aesthetic preferences. Besides, emoji and emoticons are especially common when you have a lot of short posts or line breaks, like in texts, Twitter, or instant messaging, where most people don't punctuate at the end of every utterance anyway. Which means, ironically, that the people who run into the most problems with how to formally punctuate these symbols aren't actually the everyday users—it's the people like me who write about them. :P