Emoticons are typographic illustrations, usually made of punctuation characters, intended as shorthand for certain authorial intent that might not otherwise be apparent in a short digital communication. Since 1982, they’ve been part of the internet (when that word was still capitalized).
Latterly they’ve been displaced by emoji, which are single pictorial characters that accomplish the same thing. Indeed, emoji are basically ligatures for emoticons.
Still, emoticon innovation continues, most prominently kaomoji, which are emoticons that use longer combinations of Japanese and other non-Latin characters. Most famously—
As a typographer and writer, I avoided emoticons for many years, thinking them jejune. But as I found myself needing to correspond with more strangers, I grudgingly acceded. My go-to emoticon—the short winker
;)—has helped prevent my attempts at dry humor from being misinterpreted. Furthermore, Bryan Garner (see bibliography) endorses emoticons. So I’m persuaded that they’re not contributing to the decline of world culture. Much, anyhow.
Three caveats, however—
Emoticons and emoji, even more so than ampersands, are casual shorthand. So in non-casual settings—for instance, on your résumé—don’t.
Overuse of these symbols is just as irritating as the overuse of question marks and exclamation points, or all caps. If you find yourself punctuating every sentence with
:-)to avoid misunderstandings, learn to write better.
Though emoticons look mostly the same everywhere, emoji can render differently among devices and platforms. So don’t count on nuance.
Sideways emoticons should match the orientation of your writing system. So in English, a smiley is
In 2018, an iPhone bug was discovered where simply sending the Telugu character జ్ఞా in a text message would crash the phone.