14 February 2013

"Asterisk-framed actions"

Daring Fireball notes the rising incidence of the use of bounding asterisks to denote emphasis:
Where by “emphasis” I mean “informing the reader of a shift in style or voice”, such as how foreign words are italicized in many publications and books. Using asterisks this way strikes me as an Internet-ism. I would think those coughs should be italicized; using bounding asterisks is a substitute in plain text contexts, something we collectively started doing in email, newsgroups, web comments and forums, Twitter, and various other input fields where computer software doesn’t allow proper italics (or bold, or any other formatting).
After obtaining the graph above using Google's Ngram viewer, he speculates that the rise of *cough* is internet-based, but the earlier (1960s) rise of *sigh* can be attributed to Charles Schulz.

I hadn't noticed the phenomenon and haven't made use of it.  Added to repertoire.

Via The Dish.


  1. In programmer land, the use of asterisks for emphasis is *so* common (see what I did there?) that it is incorporated into the markdown language. We write files in this language, which is just plain text with some simple conventions; then a tool turns it into HTML (or whatever). Very handy.

  2. *sigh* Some programs automatically italicizes whatever's between the **. It's not always for emphasis, really, it's more like stage direction in a play.

    John Hero: *shrugs and shakes his head* Frankly my dear Indigo, I don't give a darn.

    Or, on my status update: Why do my kids always get would up before bedtime? *sigh*

  3. Since I started writing (typing! On a correcting selectric II!) my first zines for an APA (Amateur Press Association) in the early 80's, I've used "*"s for both Bold/Emphasis and for actions.

    Also, "/" surround italics in my world, and "_" denote underline.

    In the past few years, I've been surrounding actions in curly braces more and more.

    But yes, comics - strips and books - are certainly an influence on this.

  4. Clicked through from g-reader to advance the markdown hypothesis, and I see that commenter #1 already has it.

    Be careful with ngram data - relative rates can be misleading when the reference/base rate is vanishingly rare.

    The introduction of technical books on html or web publishing to a corpus could produce what you see above.

  5. I often use just plain "" when responding to an email or Facebook notice of the passing of a not-quite-close friend, when I don't want to say "I send condolences." [For a proper use of 'condolence', see The Condolence Council, in Hale, _Iroquois Book of Rites_.]

    BTW, / / is the way linguists indicate the phonetic pronounciation of a word.

  6. *sigh* you misspelled Schulz. see signature on pic.

  7. I thought that asterisk-framing meant you were supposed to picture the writer actually performing the action as the line was being written.


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