Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Are you being serious?

The identification of sarcasm and irony

Always being behind on the latest trends I have only just been alerted to the existence of the 'SarkMark'.

Stupid Idea? Think About It!

With the spoken word, we use our tone, inflection and volume to question, exclaim and convey our feelings. The written word has question marks and exclamation points to document those thoughts, BUT sarcasm has NOTHING! In today’s world with increasing commentary, debate and rhetoric, what better time could there be than NOW, to ensure that no sarcastic message, comment or opinion is left behind...Equal Rights for Sarcasm - Use the SarcMark.

It comes, as such things tend to do, from America. I suppose that, being British, I should say that it most certainly looks it.

Sarcasm or irony?

Is sarcasm the same as irony? They they do seem to be variations upon the same trait, distinguished by the nuances of snobbery, the better kind of person being possessed or irony, lesser beings (including of course foreigners) being stuck with sarcasm, the 'lowest form of wit'.

One of the strange illusions that the British hold about themselves is that a sense of irony is a particularly refined art amongst the British. As a corollary, it may be considered that a developed sense of irony is not to be found amongst other nations. The British find it highly amusing to think that there could be such a thing as American irony, or Italian irony, or German irony. (The Brits have no myths one way or other about Magyars, and no myths means no information whatsoever).

The most useful human truth to consider in discussions of group differences is that there is usually at least as much within-group as between-group variation. In other words, people vary a lot in their exercise of the sarcasm/irony trait, whoever they are.

I personally do rather tend rather towards 'the lowest form of wit', rather often in fact. Those similarly oriented or inclined go along with this, but others, less so, and do at times take considerable umbrage. My positions on all sorts of issues, some of which I consider far too deep for tears, and address accordingly, have sometimes been severely misunderstood over the years because of such mismatch of style. Indeed, I have at times landed myself in severely hot water for ironical or sarcastic comments (the fault for which is always always unquestionably laid at my own door).

Flag it?

So the idea of the SarkMark seemed on first hearing yesterday to offer a great advance in the technology of human communication (at least in cases when one's interlocutors grasp the underlying notion of punctuation in the first place). Give widespread adaptation of the proposed SarcMark, people would know what to lake literally or seriously, and when to summon up that extra 'a pinch of salt' and ask themselves what is really being said.

I could then flag up a warning sign about the way that I might regard researchers' almost unavoidable conclusion that 'more research is needed', or of the attitude of the parent-Mayor of Brusselles towards the paediatricans and associated persons at their forthcoming big conflab in his city. Then those readers who just 'don't get it' at first reading, or get it sure enough but then refuse to accept it as an ironical (or sarcastic) take upon the doings of of the day, would have a zonking great signpost to help orient them to what they are really reading.

A SarcMark stuck in the ground next to such unrecognised verbal UXBs might prove helpful to some readers, not just with what they encounter here in Conductive World but, as the originators of this would-be punctuation mark intends, in all sorts of contexts elsewhere.

So, will or won't I?

Utilitarian or no, the SarkMark is a strange whimsy, its inner contradiction being enough to banish it from the punctuation of the literate. Simply put, if one's intentions so need flagging up or signposting, then explicit signage to say 'This bit is meant sarcastically' indicate no more than writers' contempt for the audience's intelligence, other than for those tawdry aspects of their topic towards which their withering contempt should be directed.

So the SarkMark is unlikely to find itself deployed here on Conductive World. Some things here might indeed be meant sarcastically (or even ironically) but please don't expect this to be spelt out in neon. There are things to be reported in Conductive Education in which assiduously applied SarkMark would come so thick and fast as to be in danger of enveloping significant parts of the text. Indeed there are some topics in and around Conductive Education, proper mention of which might cry out for the assumption that 'sarc' is the default mode for every word to be said about it.

This leads one inevitably to the next logical step – introduction of a further, new soi-disant punctuation mark, to make clear those few parts where one might be safe to take seriously what one reads.

Sarcasm and irony are really effective only if listeners or readers have to stay on their toes, and recognise them, or make their own judgement of just how seriously they should be taking the outer form of what they read or hear, then seek or apply the inner meaning for themselves. In other words, they have to have their own critical stance, their own critical apparatus, and never, never believe all that they hear of read.

I am all for punctuation as means to help convey the meaning of a text (ask the students whom I used to persecute over this), but the arc mark, despite its claim is not, I think, a punctuation mark in its proper sense. It is rather a prop (a 'support') that teaches the audience to be passive recipients of information presented. It robs them of the possibility of active agency within this transaction (sound familiar?). It closes down on their ability to learn, and that would surely never do.

Not in Conductive Education, of all places.

Further enlightenment

– (2010) SarcMark. Tell them how you really feel

Meltzer, T. (2010) The rise of the SarcMark – oh, how brilliant, Guardian, 20 January


  1. My Hungarian acquaintances often possess a subtle and brutal humour.

    Fowler's table is still good, allowing for modern tastes.

    (Look under Humour and Wit in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern usage, 3rd edition 1987, Oxford).

    And four years ago I wrote something about the sarcasm mark.

    I would probably now call it the Snark Mark.

  2. Reminds me of that piece "Eats, shoots, and leaves" wherein the author asserts that the hyphen is the last resort of those who don't know how to punctuate a sentence.

  3. Oh, James!

    I plead guilty there.

    And the comma and semicolon are the provinces of those who do.

    Then there's the politics of en and em dashes.

    Truss was writing to her friend who had strawberry hair and freckles, if I recall correctly.

    Sarcasm and the exclamation mark (circa April 2006)

  4. Andrew,

    Those who did not catch on that you were being sarcastic or ironic in other blogs, especially in those with researchers and mayors mentioned, will perhaps think you are being so in this one and won't believe that you are being ironic in the others, if you see what I mean. They may just think that this is the ironic one and will not have a clue anymore what is going on.

    That is quite funny.

    I think I like it better without the SarcMark.