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Sarcasm in e-mail needs to be signalled. Yeah, right

How many times have you had the conversation about how difficult it is to express irony in e-mails? About how difficult it is to convey tone of voice in a short text? How many apologies have been made for incendiary tweets whose sarcastic intent was not immediately clear? And how many times have we agreed that emoticons and other punctuational aids to intonation are simply not expressive or sophisticated enough to have a place in adult communication? And surely we all agree that there is nothing more cringe-making than the message or posting that ends with or #sarcasm, just to hammer it home?

People keep coming up with possible solutions to our apparent expressive deficiency in digital media. A few years ago, a clever webhead created a site advocating the use of what he called the sarcastic font. The idea was simple: Take any type and slant it to the left, rather than to the right – backward italics, if you like – and the meaning should be construed as sarcastic. He created one of these fonts and made it available for free download (it was just Arial, but with the left-slanting option). He suggested that you use it sparingly to set off individual phrases in your text such as, "Yeah, a sarcasm font, what a great idea." The idea never caught on.

Someone else then came up with the idea of an emoticon expressing sarcasm. It's called a SarcMark, and you can download it from their site and use it in fonts and as a graphic image. It looks something like an upside-down e with a dot in it. You are supposed to put it at the end of sarcastic statements, as you would a smiley face on critical statements. (The smiley face is now primarily used to soften the blow of a reproach – a passive-aggressive approach, if you ask me.)

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The SarcMark will not catch on, either. Sarcasm is humorous only because it is a parody of regular speech; all its humour lies in its exact resemblance to a sincere statement. Think about it: A sarcastic statement is funnier when the speaker's delivery is dry and sober, not exaggerated. Exaggerated sarcasm is childish.

Sarcasm – saying the opposite of what you mean with mocking intent – is not the same as irony, a much broader concept that includes all kinds of speech such as knowing self-deprecation and deliberate understatement. Neither is exactly the same as being sardonic – a term that just means being humorously derisive. The sardonic is also so often a question of tone rather than of language itself.

The problem of signalling a second level of meaning for a written sentence is not new or even a product of the digital age. A backward question mark was used in English printing in the late 16th century to signal a rhetorical question, a question that did not expect an answer. It was called a percontation point, and it fell into disuse in the following century.

But since then we have used a variety of typographical devices to signal disapproval or disbelief in what we are saying. An exclamation mark within parenthesis, for example, is used to signal disagreement with someone else's views, particularly when you are quoting them: "Blatchford witnessed young men embracing and felt 'mortified and appalled' [!]. (I hope you like that the last sentence ended with six consecutive punctuation marks, all correctly used.) The idea of this sign is not quite the same as the sarcasm mark but similar in that it throws doubt on the value of the statement it follows.

But really all such devices are clumsy and unnecessary. A good writer conveys tone through words alone. There's a funny New Yorker cartoon I remember that shows an urbanite in a natty suit and a shaved head talking to a similar guy in a fashionable bar. "Of course I said that in an ironic tone," he says, "there's very little I don't say in an ironic tone." There is little in the picture or the punctuation that exactly illustrates the ironic tone: The rhythm of the words alone does it. This is possible in fiction too. You will always ruin the power of a line of sarcastic dialogue by explaining it with the phrase "he said sarcastically."

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