Language Log: ‘The Cyberpragmatics of Bounding Asterisks’

Ben Zimmer at Language Log takes my piece on bounding asterisks and runs with it, brilliantly:

Now let’s skip ahead to Internet usage. Gruber characterized the use of bounding asterisks in online communication as a form of emphasis, but pragmatically it’s a bit more complex than that. True, bounding asterisks can emphasize a word or words in plain-text messages where italics and bolding are unavailable, but the legacy of the comic strips points in another direction — the use of bounding asterisks to signal non-verbal noises or actions as a kind of self-describing stage direction. […]

What’s fascinating about these asterisked stage directions is that they have moved well beyond the onomatopoetic coughs, gulps, and sighs of the comic strips into more complex actions stated in the third person, such as *jumps up and down*.

So there’s nearly century-old precedent in comics for asterisk-like symbols to denote onomatopoetic expressions — sigh, cough, gasp, etc. — but this usage never made its way into print typography until after it became commonplace online. But where it’s used in print is not as a Markdown-like alternative to italics in general, but specifically as an alternative to italics to denote stage-like actions on the part of the writer. (Yes, Pogue’s *cough*s made it into today’s print edition of The Times.)

This trend suggests that type designers should perhaps stop creating asterisks that appear quasi-superscripted, as though presumed for use to denote a footnote. Asterisks should be bigger and sit on the baseline — like other common punctuation characters (@, #, %, &) — to better work with this bracketing style.

Update: Some readers are arguing that even in this usage, asterisks should remain superscript-y, to make them more like quotation marks. I can see that argument, but to my mind this asterisk usage functions more like parenthetical brackets than quote marks. (For another, not all languages use English-style quotation punctuation. In European languages that use «guillemets», a baseline-sitting asterisk would seem natural.)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

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