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If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of a misunderstanding about the intention behind a text or email, you’ll know what I mean when I say tone of voice matters.
Unless you know someone well, it can be hard to understand whether they are being sarcastic, ironic, or deadly serious when you only have written words to go on. Context helps many people figure out the likely intention, but for those who are neurodivergent, or if you’re reading something in a rush and don’t stop to consider alternatives, meaning can easily get lost.
So I was blown away when my eldest told me about tone tags. They do what they say on the tin – explain the intended tone so anyone reading knows just what you mean.
Tone tags in action
The list of tone tags is pretty comprehensive:
The technical name for these little bits of shorthand is paralinguistic signifiers, but I think tone tags has a much better ring to it! A bit of research suggests they were developed to help people who are neurodivergent and/or find it hard to read tone – but isn’t that everyone in the fast-paced environment of online, especially places like Twitter where context is so often missing?
Emojis are open to pretty wide interpretation (a heated conversation with my teenager was once prompted by me using this emoji XX which I intended to mean I was wincing/finding something uncomfortable. I was swiftly informed that teenagers attach a whole different meaning to it of the X-rated variety!). Tone tags, on the other hand, deliver absolute clarity.
Language has always changed
By its very nature, language evolves. Looking back over a Word of the Year list, podcast tied with Sudoku in 2005. Both have been completely adopted into current vocabularies. Omnishambles (2012), is perhaps not in such common use – although it definitely still has a place.
Punctuation has also ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Recognising the potential need to denote tone in printed materials, several ways of suggesting irony were suggested. The percontation point was first proposed in the 1580s as a reversed question mark, but other designs were also suggested. In 1668 John Wilkins proposed an inverted exclamation mark for the same purpose.
The internet’s affect on language and punctuation
As we inhabit increasingly digital worlds, those of us who write content intended to be read online need to adapt to readers’ behaviour. We have to write more succinctly, use headings so copy can be scanned, and beware of misinterpretation by someone skipping through our content.
Poe’s Law has evolved from internet culture. It states that, without a clear indication of intent, every parody of extreme views can be interpreted as being sincere. Tone tags might be just the remedy for making Poe’s Law obsolete.
I won’t be littering my emails with tone tags just yet, but I will be using them a bit more in text/WhatsApp conversations and on Twitter. After all, no one wants to be on the wrong end of a misinterpretation.