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Smilflation, or: The Dirty Pleasure of the Emoticon

George Orwell, best known for his satiric novel about Donald Trump, famously remarked that writing an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. Little did he know that, roughly a century later, there would be a universally accepted form of punctuation that allows writers to—quite literally—laugh at their own jokes: the smiley, or emoticon ;-)

I use smileys all the time, even in professional communication. But many things about them bother me. Here's one question, which I'm sure you've struggled with as well: Is a smiley a sentence-ending punctuation mark? That is, does a smiley replace a period, question mark, or exclamation point? And if not, should it come before or after the period, question mark, or exclamation point? In other words, which of the following is correct?

  • How are you :-)
  • How are you? :-)
  • How are you :-) ?

I would go with the first option; the others just look too awful. And "how are you" is not really a question anyway. But reasonable people have been known to disagree on this. It's an important issue though, especially in professional communication, where you want to show that you know how to use smileys properly.

And then there's the thorny issue of smiley inflation, or smilflation: Once you've used a smiley once, you have to keep using them. If not, you're making a point, and a pretty harsh one too. Just look:

  • [Ariane] How are you :-)
  • [Justin] Great :-D Will I see you tonight?
  • [Ariane] Sure.

Ouch. Ariane would have done better to either not use a smiley to begin with, or reply something like: "Sure :-D" Or she could have just said no, of course.

Smilflation is not a joke. Studies have shown that people who are used to smileys perceive smiley-free sentences as unfriendly. One in every five sentences in Internet communication is now accompanied by one or more smileys. And in some forms of communication, like chat messages, and some forms of humans, like girls, this number is much higher. (David Crystal's Making a Point has some interesting discussion on this.)

Smileys lose all meaning once they end every sentence. In a world invaded by smileys, how can you still convey happiness? Of course, you could use two smileys :-) :-), or use a smiley with a more extreme expression :-D. But that's just a temporary solution, because smilflation inevitably pushes toward an infinite number of ecstatically happy smileys.

It's only a matter of time until smileys invade also spoken language, eventually replacing all forms of spoken and written communication. The linguistic singularity. We will all become Japanese girls.