Does anybody actually use tone indicators?

What are tone indicators?

Tone indicators or tone tags are slash-letter combinations that you add to the end of a remark to let people know how you meant it.

Like this:

I hate teachers /j

/j means “joking”

You can find whole lists of them online, but it is important to note that most of the tone indicators on those lists are NOT used. Of course they aren’t, it’s way too much to memorise.

Which tone indicators actually get used?

To answer the question in the title: yes, people do actually use tone indicators, but only a few, not very often, and only within online communities where using them is a thing.

The ones that get used are:

/s – sarcasm

/j – joking

/hj – half joking

/gen – genuine or /srs – serious

This list is not based on any kind of in-depth study, but just on what I have seen around the web. Let me know in the comments if you disagree.

Are tone indicators helpful?

The idea behind tone indicators is that they are helpful to convey tone in text-based messages, where the face or the tone of the speaker cannot help you to decide if someone is trying to be e.g. sarcastic or not. The indicators are seen as helpful by autistic people especially, because they often have trouble decoding the “real” meaning behind a joke.

However, for some, tone indicaotrs can make life more difficult, as this YouTuber who has a big problem with the tone indicator /hj makes clear.

There is another type of tone indicator

As a linguist, I would be remiss not to point out that the term “tone indicator” can also refer to something completely different. Many languages are tonal, such as Mandarin and Thai, and there are written indicators to show which tone should be used when reading out a piece of writing. These are officially called “tone letters”, but I have heard them being called “tone indicators” – the term does make a lot of sense in context. I am referring to the blocky things in the picture below, Wikipedia has an article about them that is VERY technical.

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and translator. She is fascinated by contemporary English and the way English changes. Her newsletter is English in Progress. 1100 subscribers and growing every day!

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