The pointing of the snark

3 Jan

Anyone know what this is?


It’s a “snark”: a punctuation mark proposed – if sources are to believed, as early as 1580 by the inventive English printer Henry Denham – to indicate the presence of irony in a sentence.*

In fact, Denham originally proposed it for use with rhetorical questions; subsequent observers lobbied for its revival to mark ironic passages, and many now insist that social media is crying out for such a device. But without success: despite four-and-a-quarter centuries of misunderstandings, dud punchlines and needless offence, there’s still no real demand for a mark that resolves, once and for all, whether you were being serious the other night on Twitter.

The smiley 🙂 is a useful prophylactic when addressing a mass electronic audience – some people append it to almost every tweet, just to be on the safe side – but its intent is to really signal friendliness, a lack of hostility, in what might be construed as dissent or criticism. Irony is a bit beyond it: it really just stands in for the smile you adopt when edging  your way towards the bar in a crowded pub.

My favourite definition of irony – one not too different, in fact, from Collins’s – comes from the days when the Sunday edition of the Tribune had its own style guide, before they were merged five years ago. Aimed more – I like to think – at writers than editors, it ran as follows:

ironically avoid when what you mean is strangely, coincidentally or amusingly. Irony is a deliberate incongruity between what is said and what is meant

And that definition suggests  the explanation for why the snark has never caught on. A few years ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Henry Hitchings suggested that the reason for its unpopularity is that “internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation” – as witnessed by recent suggestions that the use of the full stop in social media is perceived as “aggressive”. But, in this case, there’s more to it.

The central point of irony is the ambiguity: the uncertainty as to what is being  said. It is set as a rhetorical test on the audience: its effect relies on the fact that the reader is rewarded for choosing the correct interpretation. To indicate its presence beyond doubt, with punctuation, is to close off all alternatives and to deny the reader that moment. Marking the presence of irony has the effect – ironically – of removing it from the sentence altogether.

* Thanks, Buzzfeed, for the image

8 Responses to “The pointing of the snark”

  1. Jeff January 18, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    Not sure about the style guide, I find that irony can be coincidental/amusing but is normally at least one step further on than frequently heard colloquially. For example, you can imagine someone saying “Ironically I was late for my job interview” (meaning something like ‘It was unfortunate because it’s the kind of appointment you don’t want to be late for’) whereas to be really ironic it would have to be something like “I travelled by Tube and was late for my interview for the job of public transport advocate”.

    • edlatham January 18, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

      Yes, I challenged the style guide writer about that once and he said that the bar for ‘ironically’ had been set deliberately high ‘to stop people bloody using it in stories!’ I think it is possible, in fact, to have unintentional irony

      • Jeff January 20, 2014 at 11:48 am #

        Came across a nice example of unintentional irony today in David Hendy’s book Noise: “the cruel irony of westerners jetting off to silent retreats in India, shattering the quiet of anyone living below the flight path.”

      • edlatham January 20, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

        Yes, that qualifies, I think. Perhaps literary irony does have to be intentional, though

      • Jeff February 24, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

        And here’s a example of poor usage from The Atlantic: “Ironically, the quagmire that Rumsfeld helped create in Mesopotamia also had the effect of turning these once-inviolate Asian relationships into second-order issues open to renegotiation.” So that would be irony in the sense of unexpected benefit arising from an unfortunate situation; doesn’t do it for me.

      • edlatham February 24, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

        Yes, especially when it’s the *lack* of intention that’s the point. It fails the style guide test comprehensively

  2. Archie Wah Wah January 22, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    You could do with a snark for your last sentence: ‘thanks, Buzzfeed, for the image’. Buzzfeed have been under fire recently for not naming their sources correctly, if at all.

    • edlatham January 22, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

      Yes, true! I live in fear of passing-off/subconscious plagiarism, so try to be punctilious about credits. Until the internet turns us into one giant hive mind, anyway

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