A Linguist Explains How We Write Sarcasm on the Internet


Excerpt from this article:

Sarcasm. It’s an Essential Part of a Healthy Breakfast™, but it’s also “dangerous”, especially in writing. What if ~no one~ gets that u are being sarcastic.


The punctuation-mark-inventors may have been heading in the right general direction (#bless) but it turns out it’s clumsy to create an additional character — and you often want to put that ironic emphasis on a particular word or phrase. Enter sarcastic “quotation marks,” tildes (~so effective), and the elaborate variations which a colleague of mine refers to as ~*~sparkly unicorn punctuation~*~. True, it’s sometimes used for excitement or quoting song lyrics, but when I saw a friend reblog a tumblr post with the tag ~*misandry*~, I knew she was ironically distancing herself from the topic in true Toastean fashion…


… Capitalizing Unimportant Words imposes a certain sense of ironic detachment. Adding (TM) or periods between each word is optional but extra effective. …

Internet slang

Certain uses of internet slang can also add a note of sarcasm, especially the vowelless ones: srs bsns, for example, contains a contradiction — how srs can your bsns really be if you’ve disemvowelled it?

…Hashtags as a class are often add disambiguating meta-commentary… And of course, there’s the obvious internet sarcasm indicators which go right out and say it in a backchannel, such as and #sarcasm.

…Let’s put them all together. Here’s a real twitter conversation to analyze:

  • Gina Trapani: “Heterosexuality is SO WEIRD.”
  • “You’re watching the Bachelorette again, aren’t you.”
  • Anil Dash: @ginatrapani DON’T PIN THAT SHIT ON US
  • Gina Trapani: @anildash sorry, this has The Straights written all over it
  • Anil Dash: @ginatrapani #NotAllBreeders

How do we know Trapani and Dash are joking? We can see a couple marks of sarcasm: the period instead of question mark on “aren’t you”, and the first-letter-caps of “The Straights” plus minimalist caps and punctuation elsewhere in the tweet. #NotAllBreeders requires cultural knowledge to creates a mismatch — it’s a play on the #NotAllMen hashtag, but Dash distances himself from the people who use #NotAll hashtags unironically by using an uncomplimentary word for his own orientation.