It starts with the full stop. Every time you substitute an emoji for punctuation you are contributing to the erosion of our linguistic convention.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, language evolves; it is a constantly mutating organism. Linguistic rules are only mistakes held in common.
Why then, are we so often moved, consciously or otherwise, to attack the edifice of grammatical orthodoxy? Beyond sheer ignorance of the rules, why do we avoid finality so fervently?
A full stop is just that – a complete halt. A cold, hard boundary between one clause and the next. Full stops are curt. They are blunt instruments in our hands, and they are responsible for breaking the flow of elegant conversation. At best they may appear stiff or standoffish; at worst, rude.
What are the alternatives then? This brings us to another feature of the text-based conversation which is a direct result of full-stop-phobia: overuse of the exclamation mark. If we are so reticent to vulgarly make a statement, it follows logically that it must be shouted. Amplification, however, may result in equal brashness. This mode does allow for the least distortion in meaning, although there is definitely a degree of semantic shift. Liberal exclamation gives an impression of confidence and enthusiasm. However, there is certainly a point where the “Peter and the Wolf” effect comes into play and there is a risk of coming across as insincere.
Another option is our old friend the question mark. This is a popular choice for those who aim at traditional politeness through long accepted means. Framing responses as questions has two main advantages, the first is to soften your sentiment and the second is (particularly in the tennis-like form of online chat) to promote and perpetuate the call and response mode. However, there are serious drawbacks the contemporary conversant must consider. Overuse of question marks can come across as chronic uncertainty. Alternatively, bombardment with questions can be overwhelming, or be perceived as needy (which incidentally I believe most of us are, though we may choose to deny this.)
In my opinion, an increase in the use of questions (and the use of the neutraliser “idk” at the end of sentences) is a symptom of the times we live in. We crave recognition of our own experiences in that of others, and we crave it instantly and effortlessly. Websites such as Buzzfeed and more mainstream memes (which I hope to explore in more detail in a further post) effectively exploit this desire for shared mentality. They reassure us when we ask, “is it just me, or?”
Ah, now the politics of emojis. A smiley face is always a safe bet; but then, what is a safe bet? Lukewarm. Tepid. Beige. We are then forced into riskier territory. Winky face? Shocked? Heart? Open-mouthed smile? Or we may choose to use what is becoming the non-verbal cliché: the ubiquitous crying with laughter face. Only one thing is for sure: never the dreaded thumb.
Is any emoji ever adequate to describe a precise sentiment? Perhaps not, but it is certainly quicker. Pragmatism dictates certain automatic responses; why use symbolic language when we can simply use symbols? Technology is designed to make communication easier, and it does so by allowing us to bypass certain thought processes, thus standardising the way in which we express ourselves. But hey, isn’t that what grammar is in the first place?
I’m not sure how I feel about living in a sort of post-grammar society. It seems part of my genetic makeup to be drawn to rules, structure and strict form. Without the laws of language are we free, or are we simply lost?