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Bangs, Slashes, Smileys

Below this very paragraph is a small collection of complaints about certain typings I see way too often in chat and texts and forums and e-mails and Facebook and Twitter posts and so on.  I wrote this back in 1996 for a web site about a channel on IRC called #Friendliest, and things have only gotten worse.  Oh, well.


How To Type Good

(Note from the people who are responsible for this Dalfriends IRC Web site: The following paragraphs were written by someone who insisted we provide this space, but we do not in any way endorse any of it, nor have we even read more than the first couple sentences.  Furthermore, we do not recommend that you read it either.  You should probably return to the main parts of the #FRiendliest Web site right now.)

In this diatribe I, an irregular regular on #FRiendliest, propose to tell you how to type in an IRC channel.  It seems to me that because IRC -- this marvelous medium of real-time communication -- is so different from talking face-to-face or even on the phone, users should pay special attention to how their lines of text appear on others' screens.

I am not referring to the content per se of what is typed but rather to how that content is communicated in black squiggles on a white screen.  However, the real point is that the content you intend to communicate is affected by exactly how you type.

Before I begin my full-steam rant and rave, let me admit that I'm probably the slowest and least accurate typist in all of IRC.  You wouldn't think a typist who is slow would also be sloppy, but -- believe you me -- that's how I type.  I type using literally about three of my many fingers, and even then, despite all the practice those three have gotten, they are all the time hitting the wrong keys.  Because I refuse to take typing lessons again, and because I always have so many extremely incisive comments to make in the channel, I'm all the time sending virtually unintelligible garbage out for everyone to see and ponder over.

"Gotta ya.  Whap fro manker do. I;m fnin, and yopu>" <-- That's how I type pretty much all the time, but if I tried to slow down to be more accurate, then I would never get anything typed at all, because the conversation would have passed me by by a couple minutes.  And if you're thinking, "And is that such a bad thing?" then here is another opportunity to return to the regular non-ranting, non-raving parts of the #FRiendliest Web site.

Anyway, that's my excuse.  It's not that I don't know better, it's that I can't do better.

So, on to the main rant and rave.

I'd like to rant about five specific topics. My rantings are just my own opinions, and you should certainly feel free to disagree, as long as you don't mind being wrong.  Although I address only five topics, no doubt others could be added.  Perhaps you have a sixth pet peeve, or perhaps you are guilty of several not listed here.  If you've read this far, probably not.


At the moment my pettest peeve has to do with the pointless and confusing use of ellipses, which are those little dots . . . like this . . . that are so popular. In normal written works such as books and magazines, an ellipsis is used to denote that a thought or statement is unfinished, like this:

"From across the hall he heard her say, 'Please don't drop that pig on my . . . ' and then he heard a loud thunk and a squeal."

But in so many conversations on IRC, people use an ellipsis at the end of a line just out of habit, maybe because they've learned that if you hold down the period key, it will repeat. As I see it, to use ellipses so indiscriminately is to render their occasional appropriate use meaningless. What I mean is, if you use an ellipsis at the end of every line, then how are the others in the channel to know when you really mean it? They can't, which means you have voluntarily robbed yourself of a valuable means of communicating an idea, which in this case is that your thought or statement truly is unfinished.

Another use for the ellipsis, a use that is special to IRC channels, is to signal that your thought or statement is temporarily unfinished and that you want the others in the channel to wait till you type another line. Using an ellipsis this way, at the end of each of several lines, is a good way to tell a story or joke without being interrupted.

"If a man speaks in the woods and no woman is there to hear him . . .

. . . is he still wrong?"

But, of course, if you're all the time using ellipses at the end of a line you type when you do not really mean "Wait," then after a while you end up training people to ignore your ellipses altogether.

There are three reasons people use an ellipsis. One, as I say, is out of habit, which means it's almost always used incorrectly. In addition to the drawbacks already mentioned, there's yet another drawback, which is that the people in the channel who respect the ellipsis as a signal to not interrupt will sit there like fools for way too long, waiting for the offender to finish the thought that never gets finished.

"I know that . . ."
wait wait wait
"You . . ."
wait wait wait
"Hello . . ."
wait wait wait

Another reason is that the offender secretly or perhaps unconsciously hopes the others in the room will somehow fill in the unfinished thought in some brilliant way and give the offender credit for that brilliance. What I say is, if you don't have the guts to finish your thought, don't expect others to do it for you. Either finish your thought the best you can or don't use the ellipsis to begin, er, end with.

A third reason for using the ellipsis is that it truly is appropriate, and I encourage such use every time.

If you do want to use an ellipsis, I suggest that you render it correctly, which means using exactly three dots, not two or four or twelve, and I further suggest that you surround each dot with a tap of the space bar, just as I have done in these paragraphs, so that the ellipsis is more easily recognized as such.

Furthermore, if you do force yourself to space the dots properly every time, which takes way longer than just leaning on the period key, you might begin to realize how often you use an ellipsis when you needn't.

Personal pronouns and verbs

Ladies and gentlemen of IRC-land, I have an announcement: Personal pronouns and verbs are free.  Some of you know that, some of you don't.

The main point of all these rantings and raves is that clear expression in an IRC channel (or anywhere else, for that matter) is always desirable, and you cannot express yourself clearly for very long without the need for a personal pronoun or two, or a verb or two.  Yet one might think, from observing what sometimes passes for communication in so many IRC channels, that typing personal pronouns and verbs somehow costs extra.  It doesn't.

Now, it's true that back in the days when people sent telegrams, which was also back in the days when people rode horses to work, each word cost extra, which is why you'd see, "Home Sunday. Bagged six elk. Need more ice," instead of, "I'll be home on Sunday. I bagged six elk, and they're really beginning to stink, so I need to get more ice on the way."  The telegram version used eight words, whereas the normal, normal, normal version used 26.  At a dime a word, the telegram saved the sender $1.80, which in those days would buy as many as nine beer.

But communicating in IRC is not the same as sending a bunch of telegrams.  (Incidentally, all of this applies to e-mail as well as IRC, but that's another diatribe.)  In IRC you can send a complete sentence, with all those useful words in place, just as cheaply as you can send confusing, inscrutable telegramese-style messages.

So, I ask you, why in the world would you type "Appreciate it," when you could type "I appreciate it"?  In the telegramese-style message, it's unclear whether the sender means, "I appreciate it" or "You appreciate it," which is what it literally means.  The extra cost in the time necessary to say what you mean is well worth it if the benefit is additional clarity.  Unless you really want your reader to wonder what the heck you mean, there's never an excuse good enough to justify leaving out useful personal pronouns and verbs and other simple words.  Communicating clearly in IRC is tough enough without the gratuitous deletions of so many simple yet important (and entirely free) words.

I suspect one reason so many people in IRC omit the crucial personal pronoun "I" is that they were ill-taught as children.  I've heard several people of various ages and various educational backgrounds express the idea that if you type or say "I" all the time, you're somehow self-centered, that you're somehow interested only in yourself.  What I say is -- and I don't say this often enough -- balderdash, tommyrot and bullocks.

If you somehow got it into your head that you should avoid using "I" and "me" and "my" in order to seem less egotistical, less needful of attention, then you've got to take that bull by the horns and rip it right back out of your head.  If those words are necessary, or even slightly useful, to clearer communication, then by God gosh golly you should use them.  (I apologize for all the swearing, but that's what sometimes happens when you rant and rave.)

Furthermore, by omitting the "I" you're not really accomplishing your goal of seeming to be less self-centered.  When you type, "Appreciate it," the "I," if it is understood by your reader at all, is implied anyway.  By merely not typing the word, you have not succeeded in directing attention away from yourself, you've merely made yourself more difficult to understand.

If you remember correctly, your teachers who taught you to avoid the use of "I" were really saying, "Don't talk about yourself so much."  Counting up how many times you use the word "I" is a good indicator of how much you talk about yourself, but merely deleting the word from a sentence in which you are already talking about yourself doesn't make that sentence any less about you, it just makes it less scrutable.

Solidi, Virgules, Obliques, Separatrices, Slant marks, and Slashes

Whatever name you give these marks, which look like this, /, they are used way too often to mean, "I don't know, so guess."

In the same way that ellipses are sometimes used to imply, "You know what I mean, don't you?, so why don't you finish my clever thought for me in your own head and give me credit for it," so do slashes sometimes mean, "I can't decide which of these two things I mean, or I'm too lazy to do so, or I'm too lazy to type out what I mean, so I hope you'll take a good guess for me and give me credit for whichever guess is better."

Of course there are legitimate uses for the slash, such as for rendering abbreviated dates (97/08/15) and to show the division of one number by another (4/5 = 80%).  And in certain legal documents it is standard, if sometimes unnecessary, to use a phrase such as " . . . and I/we further promise to pay the sum of $1,000 in the event that he/she is struck by a falling anvil and/or calzone while on the insured premises."

But what is unacceptable is for the slash to substitute for clear thinking and clear explication thereof, as in "I will travel to Worcestershire by train/plane." There are at least two distinct meanings for such a statement: "I will travel by train or plane" and "I will travel by train and plane."

The difference between "and" and "or" is both fundamental and elementary even to pre-literate infants, so as I see it there is no excuse for confusing the two, either in your own head or in that of your reader.

Bangs and Smileys

A bang is an exclamation point, and a smiley is any of the hundreds of typographical pictures that are to be viewed by tilting one's head 90 degrees counter-clockwise.  The standard, original smiley is :) which is a pair of eyes with a smiling mouth below them.

Whoever came up with that smiley deserves a congratulatory pat on the back, and that individual continued to deserve further pats each time it was used up until, oh, maybe the third or fourth time, which was about a budillion times ago.  Now it has become, in so many people's IRC and e-mail vocabularies, the standard way to end a sentence, which means it no longer has any meaning.

Using a smiley is to originality what Chris Christie is to pole vaulting.  Or what Mother Teresa is to gang-banging.  Or what Jeffrey Dahmer is to good table manners.  Or what Donald Trump is to sanity.  Or what . . . oh, never mind.  You get the idea.

Do you know what a temperature inversion is?  It occurs over large cities located in depressed geographical locations such as Mexico City, and what happens is that a large mass of cool air gets trapped under a large mass of warm air above.  The cool air, being denser, obeys gravity by staying down low.  The warm air, being less dense, also obeys gravity by staying up where it is, and the result, especially if it all takes place in a giant bowl, is no wind.  The city suffering under such a temperature inversion continues to emit ozone and smog, of course, and all that air pollution builds up and builds up and builds up because there are no air currents to carry it away.  The result is a distinctly unhealthful atmosphere, one which we humans, even Californians, have not been bred to breathe.

So what?  So what is I remember one time asking an IRC chum what the weather was like where she lived.  She lived in Los Angeles, which was experiencing a long-term temperature inversion at the time, and she responded,

"It's really smoggy :)"

Obviously this person did not mean that she was having a smiling, happy, fun time inhaling all that soot and smoke and ozone and all those particulates.  Obviously this person was not kidding, yet that's just what her smiley said.  Obviously this person frequently types smileys without thinking what they mean.  Obviously this person types smileys out of habit (or she's literally insanely happy).

As with any literary device, if you use it too much then you dilute the power of each succeeding instance.  You know how you often hear the advice "Use it or lose it"?

Well, in the case of smileys the advice is just the opposite: "The more you use it, the more you lose it."

And if one smiley is too many, then how much worse is it to use several in a row?  A lot worse :) :) :)  Multiplying a triteness by three does not make it one-third as trite.  It makes it nine times triter.  (For those of you who are keeping score, that's the rule: You square the number of uses of unnecessary smileys to arrive at the total triteness level.)

As your smileys become more frequent and more habitual, you run into a problem I call "smiley inflation."  If you end every sentence with a smiley, then after a while you realize that if you really do mean to convey a sense of jocularity, you have to type two smileys.  So you get into the habit of typing two smileys, and after a while you realize that now you're going to have to start typing three.  Then you decide to build an alias that types out four.  You keep promising yourself you can quit any time you want, but you never do.  At this point you've become a smiley junkie, always needing more.  Pretty soon you find yourself running low on smileys, and you begin hacking into other people's computers to steal them.  You've got a major smiley monkey on your back, and your only hope is to quit cold turkey.

But, of course, it doesn't matter, because the people in the channel who know you have learned long ago to ignore your smileys completely.

The same complaint applies equally well to the overuse of exclamation points.  You probably haven't noticed, but I have not used a single bang in this whole rant and rave, and I go hours and hours without typing one in an IRC channel.  And I have never, except as a joke, typed more than one bang in a row.

Why?  Because when I do use a bang, I want it to mean something.  I want people to know that when I use a bang, I really do mean that my comment is extraordinary.

Here's are two examples of the use of a bang.  One is justified, the other is not.  You decide which is which.

"Not up to much right now!"

"A 747 just landed in my driveway!"

And (assuming you passed the test) you know what?  What's interesting about that justified bang is that it isn't really necessary.  The statement itself, that an extraordinary event occurred, carries all of the emphasis that could ever be expressed.

And that's really the point here.  If what you have to say isn't worthy of a bang on its own, then adding a bang isn't going to make it more so.  In fact, adding a bang often has the opposite effect, that of drawing attention to the fact that what you said was more nugatory than exclamatory.

So, now you get to guess what I think of multiple bangs, as in "Welcome back!!!"  What I always want to ask the senders of such messages is, "Precisely how much happier are you to see me than if you'd typed only two bangs?  And, for that matter, why don't I rate four?"

As I see it, any time you type even one exclamation point you'd better have a good reason, and anytime you type more than one, there had better be a 747 in your driveway.

-- This has been a big waste of my time.  Take me back to the normal, pleasant parts of the #FRiendliest Web site.

-- I am a masochist, and I want to go back to the TOP of "How To Type Good."


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