How Do You Punctuate Around Emoticons and Emoji? 


How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Emoticons are made of punctuation, but do they count as punctuation themselves? Should you punctuate around them? What about emoji? Do they count as punctuation or should you punctuate around them, too?

Let's explore our options:

1. Punctuate afterwards.

This seems like the most intuitive option, but it often looks awkward:

2. Punctuate before.

Okay, what if we just punctuated before the emoticon or emoji? This makes some of the examples better:

But before-punctuation makes other examples much worse, or even changes their meaning:

And how would you even go about punctuating "before" the emoticons in "my favourite emoticons are :D, :P, and :)."?

3. Don't punctuate at all.

Emoticons are made up of punctuation marks, and emoji are at least on the "special characters" set of the keyboard. Perhaps they're sufficient by themselves, without other punctuation? Let's take a look:

This doesn't have as many obviously weird examples as either of our punctuated options (the lack of close parenthesis and list commas bug me a bit, though), but it also feels like it's lacking in meaning—sure, I could say most of these, but if I really wanted to include four exclamation marks, I think I'd feel bereft at having to ditch them all.

4. Hybrid system.

Perhaps there isn't just one way to punctuate emoticons and emoji. Sometimes, you really do need punctuation—using just the opening half of a pair of parentheses looks pretty odd, for example. And omitting a question mark invokes a particular informal, flat style, which you might not be aiming for. Plus, of course, you don't want to get people confused between "you're on fire!" and "you're on! *flame emoji*". So in that case, do your best to avoid confusion: for example, I sometimes "upgrade" a :) to a :D so that it's clear that the following ) is closing the parentheses rather than just emphatic smiling — (this :D) not (this :)).

But that tiny hanging period? Those exclamation marks or question marks? They look weird, especially after an emoji, so I'd omit them or shove them next to the words, depending on the effect I'm looking for. If you're writing a more ambitious emoji-only text like Emoji Dick, you may want to use punctuation around your emoji for the same reason that we use punctuation in any connected text.

The thing is, by the time you're using emoji or emoticons, you're not exactly writing a particularly formal document, so this is exactly the time to just go with your own aesthetic preferences. Besides, emoji and emoticons are especially common when you have a lot of short posts or line breaks, like in texts, Twitter, or instant messaging, where most people don't punctuate at the end of every utterance anyway. Which means, ironically, that the people who run into the most problems with how to formally punctuate these symbols aren't actually the everyday users—it's the people like me who write about them. :P

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios