Can irony really be conveyed with punctuation?

Punctuation only gets the spotlight when it misses the mark. Writers rely on punctuation to communicate important cues to readers. Without it, writers risk rambling, misplacing a subject’s prized possession, or even facing a lawsuit, as was the situation in 2014 for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine over a missing Oxford comma. So, in honor of National Punctuation Day, let’s explore some forgotten punctuation. 

For centuries, wordsmiths have demanded punctuation marks that would convey irony and sarcasm in written text, much like verbal intonation or facial expressions do in spoken conversation. But tipping off readers to phrases with meanings beyond – or even opposite to – what is written has proved challenging.

In the mid-1600s, British philosopher John Wilkins penned the first irony mark, an upside-down exclamation point appropriately resembling a lowercase “i,” which “both hints at the im­plied irony and sug­gests the in­ver­sion of its mean­ing,” says author Keith Houston. “Com­mit­ting verbal irony to pa­per is fraught with diffi­culty for both writer and reader,” he writes in “Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.” So punctuating such sentences in this way seemed on point. 

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