Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

English has no standard punctuation mark or typographic style to show sarcasm or verbal irony. This lack has inspired a whole menagerie of proposals over the centuries, including backwards question marks, upside-down or zigzag exclamation marks, and left-slanting typefaces (‘ironics’, ‘Sartalics’). Some have gained niche usage, while others faded more or less instantly: only the winking smiley ;-) ;) has become widespread, and only in informal text.

I notice the gap sometimes when chatting online, for example when I misinterpret someone’s tone or they misinterpret mine. A tongue-in-cheek statement can easily be taken at face value if the reader doesn’t know the writer well. This happens often on Twitter, where strangers’ statements can spread without much pragmatic context.

The idea of a dedicated irony mark doesn’t really appeal to me – I tend to favour deadpan delivery over excessive obviousness, despite the greater potential for misunderstanding. Even offline I’m regularly taken seriously when I shouldn’t be. If I think it’s important to make a joking or ironic tone explicit in text, there’s always :-) ;-) and their noseless varieties.

The very nature of irony means that efforts to standardise its representation may be misconceived. Keith Houston, whose book Shady Characters supplies a fascinating history of irony- and sarcasm-marks, writes: ‘If the quality of irony in a statement is such that it must be telegraphed to the reader, is it still ironic?’ Writing about sarcasm on the internet, Gretchen McCulloch concludes similarly:

In context, sarcastic typography is part of a larger ecosystem of ways to convey emotional nuance and textual tone of voice – and it’s anything but random. Compared with all these subtle distinctions, a single sarcasm punctuation mark is too blunt an instrument: it defeats the entire saying-without-saying part of sarcasm that makes it engaging in the first place. Using a a percontation point or a SarcMark™ is like explaining why a joke is funny – if you have to bother, you’ve just ruined it anyway.

And so to The X-Files, which I’ve been rewatching in fits and starts. In the pointedly comic episode ‘War of the Coprophages’ there’s an exchange near the end that features a noteworthy example of ironic/sarcastic punctuation in the DVD subtitles. Mild spoilers follow.

The episode is about a cockroach infestation and includes several wrong turns and misdirections for the FBI agents Mulder and Scully. After a chaotic climax, questions remain unresolved. The key players – our investigating heroes, and guest stars Drs Ivanov and Berenbaum – are reflecting on what exactly happened.

Dr Bambi Berenbaum, played by Bobbie Phillips, has a name and demeanour that seem to trigger Scully’s eyebrow-raising impulse from the start. Berenbaum’s romantic/sexual tension with Mulder – if it can even be called that, since only Mulder is clearly interested – may also play a role here. The subtitles abridge the dialogue slightly, so I’ve added a full transcript of the exchange below.

Dr Berenbaum speculates, in a rather earnest style, on recent events:

X-Files war of the coprophages sarcasm punctuation 1

X-Files war of the coprophages sarcasm punctuation 2

X-Files war of the coprophages sarcasm punctuation 3

Scully is thoroughly unimpressed by this unsatisfactory thesis, and offers Mulder a withering aside, sotto voce. (I’ve included the second image below to clarify the second speaker’s identity as Dr Ivanov.)

X-Files war of the coprophages sarcasm punctuation 4

X-Files war of the coprophages sarcasm punctuation 5

Berenbaum: You know, many insects don’t develop wings until their last moulting stage. Perhaps whatever these things were, they had their final moult and have flown off back to wherever they originated.

Scully: Yeah, that would explain everything(!)

Ivanov: May I borrow this, Agent Mulder, for further study?

Notice the punctuation ending Scully’s remark. An unparenthesised exclamation mark wouldn’t have worked, because Scully’s utterance was quiet and its ironic inflection was underplayed. If she had spoken the line as an obvious joke and directed it to the group instead of just to Mulder, a straight ! would have been appropriate. But she didn’t.

Equally, a full stop was deemed insufficient to convey her attitude of mild scorn for Berenbaum’s hypothesis (and maybe also for Berenbaum herself). Most viewers would infer Scully’s sarcastic intent regardless, but the (!) serves to confirm and underline the overtones. An ellipsis may have achieved a similar effect, but the parenthetical bang is an interesting typographical choice.

I went through a phase of occasionally using (!), mainly in letters and then emails to friends, to mark an item of potential amusement. But it felt like a hedge, and the habit didn’t stick. It doesn’t appear to be searchable in Gmail, so I can’t find a concrete example of my own use of it to compare with Scully’s.

14 Responses to Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

  1. I’m rewatching them all now too. Thank you netflix. I’m hoping to get through them all before the new ones start. This is one of my favorite episodes.

  2. Don’t forget, subtitles are for hearing impaired too, and they might not realize that the remark was sotto voce and intended sarcastically, probably not for Berenbaum’s ears, so this way it was signaled to somebody who could not hear the conversation that this was not a piece of dialogue that was intended for all involved in it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true. I think Scully’s body language in delivering the line made it clear she was speaking only to Mulder, but the unusual punctuation would certainly have helped validate that interpretation.

    • Alina Cincan says:

      That’s what my first thought was too, that it may have been intended for people who are hearing impaired.

      X-Files aside, I don’t think a particular punctuation mark should be used to signal sarcasm in everyday written interaction. Unless you’d clearly signal it (I have no idea how that would work) if you were to say the same things aloud.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Yes, I don’t think there’s a device or solution that will suit all people in all cases, or even close. A little uncertainty is a fair price to pay for variation and the freedom to choose and experiment.

  3. It turns out that “(!)” is Ofcom’s official recommendation for sarcasm in subtitles, which makes it the closest thing that English has to a sarcasm mark. “(?)” is to be used for irony.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Aha! That explains the choice. Thanks, Keith. Here’s the relevant text from Ofcom’s Guidance on Standards for Subtitling:

      There are no adequate resources for portraying tone of voice in teletext subtitles. . . .
      Where tone of voice is particularly critical to meaning, and facial expression and body language are inadequate to convey the tone, the use of ‘(!)’ and ‘(?)’ immediately following speech can indicate sarcasm and irony as shown below:
      No, no. You’re not late (!)

  4. Harry Lake says:

    Interesting, thanks Stan. (And I swear I’m not writing just to mention my surprise at your use of ‘may’ in ‘An ellipsis may have achieved a similar effect’.)

  5. Dawn in NL says:

    I just saw (Fe) on a twitter message, I didn’t even get it, although I had read the above post a couple of hours ago, but someone else commented on the use of the irony symbol.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Anon’s link is to a PDF of the BBC’s Online Subtitling Editorial Guidelines V1.1 (2009), compiled and edited by Gareth Ford Williams, Senior Content Producer, Accessibility. The relevant text is on p. 21 under “Intonation and Emotion”:

      1. To indicate a sarcastic statement, use an exclamation mark in brackets (without a space in between):
      e.g. Charming(!)
      2. To indicate a sarcastic question, use a question mark in brackets:
      e.g. You’re not going to work today, are you(?)

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