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Journal of Language and Social Psychology http://jls.sagepub.

''Should Be FunNot!'' : Incidence and Marking of Nonliteral Language in E-Mail
Juanita M. Whalen, Penny M. Pexman and Alastair J. Gill Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2009 28: 263 originally published online 13 May 2009 DOI: 10.1177/0261927X09335253 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Should Be FunNot!
Incidence and Marking of Nonliteral Language in E-Mail
Juanita M. Whalen Penny M. Pexman
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Journal of Language and Social Psychology Volume 28 Number 3 September 2009 263-280 2009 Sage Publications 10.1177/0261927X09335253 hosted at

Alastair J. Gill
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

According to Kreuzs principle of inferability, speakers tend to employ nonliteral language when it can reasonably be perceived by their conversational partner. In a computermediated communicative setting, such as e-mail, this suggests that the e-mail writer might use discourse tools that facilitate comprehension on the part of the recipient. The present study examined rates of usage for various forms of nonliteral language in 210 e-mail messages written by young adults. In 94.30% of all e-mails there was at least one nonliteral statement, and participants used an average of 2.90 nonliteral statements per e-mail. Results showed that forms of nonliteral language that are typically deemed to be riskier, such as sarcasm, were used much less frequently than other less risky forms, such as hyperbole, and were marked with discourse markers more often. This indicates that e-mail authors are sensitive to the risky nature of nonliteral language use in e-mail, yet are savvy to the tools available to them in this communicative medium. Keywords: nonliteral language; irony; computer-mediated communication; e-mail; discourse analysis; pragmatics.

onliteral language encompasses a variety of forms and can be used to highlight a discrepancy between expectation and reality (Gibbs, 1994). Nonliteral language can pose interpretive challenges because, unlike a literal interpretation, the intended one is never explicitly stated but instead relies on inference (Eisterhold, Attardo, &
Authors Note: The authors thank Carly McMorris and Jacque Vanderveen for their assistance in coding nonliteral statements. We also thank Howard Giles and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on this article. This research was presented at the July 2008 meeting of the Society for Text and Discourse in Memphis, Tennessee. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, in the form of a Canada Graduate Scholarship to Juanita M. Whalen and a Standard Research Grant to Penny M. Pexman, and was supported in part by a Rgion de Bourgogne (France) FABER Postdoctoral Fellowship (05512AA06S2469) and an Economic and a Social Research Council (UK) Postgraduate Research Studentship (R00429934162) to Alastair J. Gill. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Juanita M. Whalen, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4; e-mail: 263

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Boxer, 2006). Forms of nonliteral language include, but are not limited to, hyperbole, understatement, rhetorical question, sarcasm, and jocularity (Gibbs, 2000; Hancock, 2004; Kreuz, Roberts, Johnson, & Bertus, 1996). These five forms are the focus of the present work. We examined these forms because their use has been explored in previous production studies, and the use of these forms has been linked to ironic intent (Gibbs, 2000; Hancock, 2004).1 Hyperbole involves exaggeration or overstatement of reality, such as saying I have tons of paperwork to do. Understatement is language that underplays or diminishes the reality of a situation, such as I wouldnt mind winning the lottery. Rhetorical questions are questions presented without the expectation for a response, such as Does she realize she looks crazy? In sarcasm, the intended meaning is counterfactual to the literal interpretation of the statement, such as I just love ignorant people. Finally, jocularity is language that conveys a different meaning than the one spoken without being strictly counterfactual, such as Going dancing with you guys might just be too much excitement for me to handle! Each of these forms can be employed in various everyday contexts: in face-to-face (FtF) conversation, over the telephone, in instant messaging and text messaging, or in more formal forms of communication, such as letters or literary texts. Past research has established the frequencies of nonliteral language use in some of these various communication media. For instance, Gibbs (2000) linked these five forms of nonliteral language to ironic intent and found that they amounted to 8% of remarks in FtF conversations between friends. In Gibbss analysis, results showed that hyperbole, understatement, rhetorical question, sarcasm, and jocularity were each used for critical and humorous intent. Jocularity was the most commonly used form of nonliteral language in peer conversation, with sarcasm, hyperbole, rhetorical question, and understatement being the next most frequent forms. In addition, Kreuz et al. (1996) documented the use of many figurative language forms including hyperbole, rhetorical question, irony,2 and understatement in a corpus of contemporary literary texts. Hyperbole accounted for approximately one fourth of all nonliteral statements in these text passages. Furthermore, in the first study to compare the use of nonliteral language in FtF and computer-mediated communication (using an instant messaging format), Hancock (2004) reported that sarcasm and rhetorical question were the forms used most frequently in instant messages. The purpose of the present study was to examine the frequency of nonliteral language use in a communicative context that, to our knowledge, has not yet been examined: e-mail. This examination is important because the use of e-mail as a communicative medium is widespread, yet our understanding of how communicators deal with this medium is still largely unexplored.

Communicative Challenges in E-Mail

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) media have been regarded as impoverished communicative environments by many scholars who are working to determine

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how speakers use these environments in light of the challenges. Social presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) suggests that the reduction of paralinguistic cues in the CMC environment preclude the ability to communicate as effectively as one could in FtF settings. Conversely, social information processing theory (Walther, 1992) suggests that users recognize the increased demands of conveying attitudinal and social information in the CMC environment and adapt their messages to facilitate communication, using tools available to them in the environment. There is a need for further research in this area, but results thus far suggest that users are sensitive to the challenges of the CMC environments and do adapt their communication style to meet these challenges, as the social information processing theory would predict (see Walther & Parks, 2002, for a review). Indeed, recent studies examining e-mails and blogs suggest that personality and emotion can be expressed and perceived not only in these asynchronous textual environments (Gill, Gergle, French, & Oberlander, 2008; Gill, Oberlander, & Austin, 2006; Oberlander & Gill, 2006) but also in synchronous environments such as instant messaging or text-chat (e.g., Hancock, Landrigan, & Silver, 2007). The use of nonliteral language in CMC environments provides an additional test of these accounts. In FtF contexts, the ambiguity inherent in nonliteral language is typically resolved via a host of linguistic and paralinguistic cues: the speakers choice of words (Colston & OBrien, 2000), the extent to which the statement is incongruent with preceding events (Ivanko & Pexman, 2003), the speakers tone of voice (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2005), laughter (Gibbs, 2000), facial expression (Kreuz, 1996), and communicative history (Katz & Pexman, 1997). Consistent with the social presence theory, conventional wisdom is that nonliteral language in e-mail should be avoided because, without nonverbal cues, the risk for misinterpretation is high (Eisterhold et al., 2006). That is, many important paralinguistic cues are absent in e-mail. As such, one might predict an absence of nonliteral language in e-mail texts. The principle of inferability (Kreuz, 1996) proposes that speakers tend to use nonliteral language when they are reasonably certain that it will be understood as intended. For this to be accomplished, speakers must anticipate potential sources of misunderstanding to tailor statements for accurate perception by the listener (Hancock, Dunham, & Purdy, 2000; Keysar & Henly, 2002). Previous research has established that speakers attempt this monitoring, although speakers ability to adopt the addressees perspective is imperfect (e.g., Keysar, 1994). Consistent with this notion, the social information processing theory suggests that in CMC nonliteral language use will be adapted to enhance the likelihood of interpretation. The nature of this adaptation is investigated here. Relatedly, Hancock (2004) reported that nonliteral language was used with some frequency in a synchronous CMC environment (instant messaging) and argued that in some ways the CMC environment was well suited to the use of nonliteral language; many of these arguments would also apply to the present e-mail situation. For instance, the e-mail environment may offer a protective benefit to those wishing to

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use risky forms of expression because the accountability for making a faux pas is much less than it would be in FtF communication. This face-saving feature (Brown & Levinson, 1987) may encourage nonliteral language use in e-mails. In addition, e-mail writers need not respond in real-time as they would in FtF communication. As such, they are afforded more time to craft their message, which could facilitate the use of nonliteral language. The approach taken in the present study offers an important extension to Hancocks work. First, Hancock used a synchronous CMC environment (instant messaging) whereas the present study examined another form of CMC: asynchronous e-mail communication. Second, Hancock used materials that were designed to encourage the use of nonliteral language. That particular approach was highly effective for drawing out a detailed picture of which forms are most often used and for what functions they are used. In our study, however, participants were not given irony-prone topics about which to communicate. As such, it seems likely that the present findings are representative of how nonliteral language is used in typical e-mail communications. In addition, our findings ought to extend to other asynchronous text-based communication forms, such as blogs, where writers are largely unconstrained in topic and write without immediate and ongoing feedback. Different forms of nonliteral language are used to achieve different pragmatic functions, which may be more or less useful in e-mail communication. Hyperbole strengthens the contrast between the literal interpretation of a statement and the context in which it is employed and, therefore, serves to highlight the potential nonliteral interpretation (Colston & OBrien, 2000; Kreuz, 1996; Kreuz & Roberts, 1995). In particular, hyperbole might be relatively common in e-mail communication because its ability to amplify the degree of reality could take the place of the stress provided by prosody in FtF communication. Hyperbole may permit the speaker to emphasize particular words, or elements of the situation, in the absence of paralinguistic cues. Understatement might be used to temper the degree of contrast between the literal message and the attitude felt by the speaker, also highlighting potential nonliteral intent (Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). Rhetorical question allows the speaker to convey an attitude indirectly without committing to using a more critical form of nonliteral language. Sarcasm can be employed to convey ones attitude either by muting the critical nature of the remark (Dews, Kaplan, & Winner, 1995) or by exacerbating the criticism (Colston, 1997), but is widely held to achieve both humorous and critical effect (Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). Finally, jocularity can serve as a more gentle way to tease without employing the level of criticism in sarcasm (Gibbs, 2000). Each of these forms allows the speaker to express a personal attitude indirectly, but each form serves different pragmatic functions.

Marking Nonliteral Language in E-Mail

Making ones communicative goal clear can be a challenge when multiple interpretations are possible. As such, e-mail writers should be particularly keen to use any

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cues available to them in crafting their message, to assist in accurate interpretation. In text-based communication, discourse markers can be used to achieve this goal (Kreuz, 1996; Walther, 1992). The discourse markers considered for the present study included exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, hyphens, parentheses, quotation marks, asterisks, emoticons, amplifications (words used to modulate the valence of a statement, such as adverbs or adjectives), clarifications (explicit remarks used to note nonliteral intent, such as not!), nonlinguistic statements (segments of text that do not constitute actual words, such as mmmmmm), and text portions presented entirely in uppercase letters. Each of these discourse markers was identified by Hancock (2004) as a text-based cue to nonliteral language in CMC, and they represented the range of ways in which participants could augment their message when composing e-mails. These markers either physically segment a portion of text (such as with the use of ellipses or parentheses), add emphasis (such as with the use of exclamation points), clarify potentially controversial remarks (such as with clarifications or emoticons), or generally add an affective component to the writing that might otherwise be absent. The risk involved when using nonliteral language with friends is typically lower than when using it with strangers (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Pexman & Zvaigzne, 2004). The perception of nonliteral intent often relies on allusions to prior knowledge or to shared common ground and can therefore be understood more readily when the speaker and listener know one another well (Clift, 1999; Kotthoff, 2003; Kreuz, 1996). In comparisons across differing social groups, instances of nonliteral language were found to be more frequent among acquaintances and friends than among strangers (Eisterhold et al., 2006). In the present study, we examined nonliteral language use in casual e-mails intended for friends. As such, if participants are inclined to use nonliteral language in e-mail, we should see some evidence of that in the present examination of e-mail communication. Some forms of nonliteral language are more threatening than others. Brown and Levinson (1987) noted that both understatement and hyperbole can be used to hedge ones commitment to a topic. This allows the speaker, and the listener, to save face by speaking indirectly. Sarcasm is also employed to reduce the threat to the listener. When a sarcastic speaker states the opposite of what is meant, the listener can unpack the indirect comment with the use of available cues without facing a potentially critical comment directly (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Jorgensen, 1996). Although sarcasm can serve a face-saving function, it also tends to involve an evaluative intent that is critical; hyperbole and other such forms often do not carry this critical evaluative intent (e.g., Colston, 1997). The widespread use of indirect speech acts conveys an attempt on the speakers part to respect the listeners need to maintain face (Brown & Levinson, 1987), and the forms that are typically less critical are less face-threatening. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that sarcasm tends to be the most threatening and risky form of nonliteral language.

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There is reason to believe that nonliteral language use may vary as a function of e-mail topic. In particular, e-mail writers may be more inclined to use nonliteral language when they are discussing events that have already occurred than when discussing events in the future. First, it is easier to make specific and detailed reference to events that have already transpired. Second, the discrepancy that often exists between expectations and reality provides a rich context for commentary via nonliteral remarks. Because the discrepancy between expectations and reality is more salient after the fact (when reality is known and can be compared with expectations), it is likely that the writer could make more nonliteral statements in describing a past event outcome.

In the present study, it was predicted that hyperbole and jocularity would be the most frequently used forms of nonliteral language in e-mail communication, followed by rhetorical question and understatement, and finally by sarcasm. The rationale for this predicted pattern is based on findings from previous production studies, as well as the relative risk of using each form in e-mail. That is, hyperbole is widely used in text (Kreuz et al., 1996) and is more often used to convey positive regard as it exaggerates the degree of reality (Gibbs, 1994; Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). Jocularity is a less threatening counterpart to sarcasm and can be quite frequent in peer communication (Gibbs, 2000). Understatement has not always been found to occur with the same incidence as hyperbole; it is sometimes used to convey negative regard as it downplays reality (Gibbs, 2000; Kreuz et al., 1996). Rhetorical question is commonly used to manage the discourse (Roberts & Kreuz, 1994, p. 161); this goal would be less relevant in an asynchronous e-mail setting such as ours, making the expected frequency of this form relatively low. Finally, sarcasm ought to be used very infrequently because of the relative risk with using this form, particularly in the impoverished CMC setting. It was also expected that the different forms of nonliteral language would be marked by discourse markers with different frequencies. That is, the less threatening forms of nonliteral language (e.g., hyperbole) would be marked with discourse markers less often than the more risky forms (e.g., sarcasm). Certainly, rhetorical question should almost always be marked with a question mark. Although these questions are not sincere, there is a strong convention of marking questions with a question mark. The e-mail writer should mark sarcasm and jocularity more often because of the increased face threat involved when using those forms. Also, nonliteral remarks were expected to be marked with discourse markers more often when the remark was directed at a particular target. When a target is referenced by a remark, the risk of offending the target is great and warrants the use of discourse markers to ensure the recipient can discern the appropriate interpretation. This should be particularly true when the target of the remark is the e-mail recipient.

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E-mail writers in the present study were instructed to compose two e-mails: one that described events of the past week and one that described events of the upcoming week. Our final prediction was that writers would produce more nonliteral language in describing the events of the past week than in describing events of the next week.

One-hundred and five native English-speaking adults, 37 males and 68 females (mean age = 24.34 years; SD = 4.60), participated in the present study. Participants were primarily students, or recent graduates, from Edinburgh, Scotland. We note, however, that this is a relatively diverse population, with students originating from throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom. In addition, as the study was Web based, the link was often forwarded to friends, a small number (12) of whom were in Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (see Gill, 2004, for further details).

Materials and Procedure

The e-mail texts analyzed in the present study were originally used by Gill and colleagues (e.g., Gill et al., 2006; Oberlander & Gill, 2006) for studies investigating the relationship between personality and (nonfigurative) language and personality perception in e-mail communication. Participants were instructed to write two brief e-mails to a close friend to whom they had not spoken in some time. In one e-mail they were told to discuss the events of the past week (past oriented) and in the other they were told to discuss the events of the upcoming week (future oriented). Participants were instructed to write continuously, in English prose, and were told not to edit their writing or to correct mistakes. Participants were instructed to spend approximately 10 minutes writing each e-mail.

Classification of Nonliteral Language Forms

The first author coded every e-mail text for instances of nonliteral language and categorized each instance as one of the five types. A second coder then applied the same coding scheme to all the e-mail texts, and interrater agreement was calculated. The interrater agreement for identifying a statement as nonliteral was 86.69%. Once identified as nonliteral, the interrater agreement for classifying each statement into one of five types was 98.69%. All cases of disagreement were discussed until full agreement was reached. Samples of each of the five types of nonliteral statements are presented in the appendix.

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The mean word count for the past-oriented e-mails was 284.90 words per e-mail (SD = 125.35), and for the future-oriented e-mails the mean word count was 221.02 words per e-mail (SD = 105.82). The mean number of nonliteral statements was 3.69 (SD = 3.19) in the past-oriented e-mails and 2.11 (SD = 2.05) in the future-oriented e-mails. To control for the difference in mean word count between the past-oriented and future-oriented e-mails, a proportion was calculated by dividing the number of nonliteral utterances in each e-mail by the word count for that e-mail. Even after controlling for the different word counts in this way results showed that, as expected, participants used more nonliteral statements when writing past-oriented e-mails (M = .0125; SD = .0095) than when writing future-oriented e-mails (M = .0093; SD = .0080), t(104) = 2.80, p < .01. The relative percentages of the five types of nonliteral language are presented in Table 1. Table 2 displays the instances of marking for each nonliteral language type: nonliteral statements were marked with discourse markers 56.20% of the time, and each marked statement was accompanied by an average of 1.49 (SD = 0.74) discourse markers. Table 3 provides the frequency of each type of discourse marker used with nonliteral language. Table 4 provides the percentages of remarks that were self-directed, other-directed (at a third party), and nondirected in each of the e-mail topic conditions. Nonliteral statements were directed at a target 56.50% of the time, with only 3.90% of those remarks being targeted at the e-mail recipient. We checked for gender differences in each of these aspects of the statements and none were significant. All data were analyzed using multiway frequency analysis, reported next. An exploratory multiway frequency analysis was conducted to develop a hierarchical log linear model exploring potential relationships between each of our variables: e-mail topic (past oriented or future oriented), type of nonliteral statement (hyperbole, understatement, rhetorical question, sarcasm, or jocularity), marking of statements (marked with discourse markers or unmarked), and targeting of statements (directed at a target or not directed at a target). If cell frequencies are less than five for more than 20% of the total cells in the analysis, the power of the multiway frequency analysis is compromised (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). The targeting variable, in particular, had highly variable cell counts and had many cells containing observations of less than five. The cell frequencies were particularly low for remarks that were directed at the e-mail recipient. To combat the potential problems associated with low cell counts, we collapsed the original four categories of this variable into two categories, one for remarks that are not directed at a target and one for remarks that are directed at any target (e-mail recipient, e-mail writers themselves, or some third party not involved in the e-mail communication). Our sample included 608 nonliteral statements. An exploratory hierarchical analysis was conducted to determine the fit of the model, including the 4 first-order effects,

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Table 1 Relative Percentages of Five Types of Nonliteral Language, as a Function of E-Mail Topic Condition
E-Mail Topic Condition Type of Nonliteral Language Sarcasm Jocularity Hyperbole Understatement Rhetorical question Past Oriented 5.60 5.30 72.20 6.40 10.50 Future Oriented All E-Mails 10.70 3.60 68.50 6.60 10.70 7.40 4.60 70.90 6.50 10.60

Table 2 Percentage of Nonliteral Statements With Discourse Markers, as a Function of Nonliteral-Language Type and E-Mail Topic Condition
E-Mail Topic Condition Type of Nonliteral Language Sarcasm Jocularity Hyperbole Understatement Rhetorical question Past Oriented 88.90 81.00 45.60 60.90 87.20 Future Oriented All E-Mails 95.00 88.90 50.90 61.50 68.20 92.10 83.30 47.50 61.10 80.30

the 6 second-order effects, the 4 third-order effects, and 1 fourth-order effect. The test of K-way effects showed that with the first-order effects entered in the model there was a significant reduction in the amount of unexplained variance, 2(7) = 877.86, p < .001. In addition, with the second-order effects included in the model there was a significant reduction in variance, 2(15) = 82.27, p < .001, as was the case with the third-order effects, 2(13) = 22.78, p < .05. The further inclusion of the fourth-order effect offered no additional reduction in the amount of unexplained variance, 2(4) = .90, p = .925, indicating that the inclusion of at least some of the first-, second-, and thirdorder effects can be used to accurately predict cell frequencies. Tests of the partial associations showed that 7 of the possible 15 effects were significant. The interaction between e-mail topic, targeting, and marking was significant, 2(1) = 7.37; p < .01; indicating that (for all significant partial associations) there were dependencies between those cells in particular. In addition, the interaction between the statement type and marking of statements was significant, 2(4) = 63.86, p < .001, as was the interaction between targeting of statement and marking, 2(1) = 5.20, p < .05. Finally, the main effects of each of the four variables were significant: e-mail

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272 21.10 33.30 18.60 13.60 19.40 23.80 0.00 20.70 15.40 28.60

Table 3 Percentages of Types of Discourse Markers Used With Five Types of Nonliteral Statements, as a Function of E-Mail Topic Condition

Quotation Exclamation Question All Nonlinguistic Ellipsis Marks Points Marks Emoticon Caps Amplification Cues Parentheses Clarification Hyphen

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Past oriented Sarcasm 10.50 5.30 47.40 0.00 0.00 0.00 5.30 0.00 31.60 15.80 Jocularity 16.70 5.60 55.60 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 27.80 11.10 Hyperbole 6.90 2.00 20.20 0.80 0.00 0.40 1.60 0.40 10.90 1.20 Understatement 9.10 0.00 27.30 0.00 4.50 0.00 22.70 0.00 4.50 13.60 Rhetorical 11.10 5.60 16.70 72.20 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 19.40 0.00 question Future oriented Sarcasm 33.30 4.80 52.40 14.30 0.00 4.80 4.80 0.00 28.60 14.30 Jocularity 42.90 28.60 42.90 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 14.30 0.00 Hyperbole 14.80 0.00 23.00 3.00 0.70 0.00 3.00 0.00 7.40 2.20 Understatement 15.40 0.00 30.80 0.00 0.00 7.70 7.70 0.00 0.00 0.00 Rhetorical 4.80 0.00 19.00 57.10 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 14.30 0.00 question

Note: Following Hancock (2004), asterisks were considered a discourse marker, but as there were no instances of asterisks marking nonliteral language in the present study, this type of marker is not presented in this table. Amplifications are utterances that modulate the valence of a remark often by the use of adverbs and adjectives, such as quite in the phrase thats quite a dress; nonlinguistic cues are portions of text that do not constitute actual words, such as mmmmmm; clarifications are utterances that explain the existence of nonliteral utterances, such as not! following a sarcastic remark (e.g., it looks perfect out today . . . not!). The percentages in each column do not sum to 100 as multiple markers could be used with each utterance type.

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Table 4 Percentage of Nonliteral Statements Directed at Self, Other, or Nondirected, as a Function of E-Mail Topic Condition
Recipient Self-Directed Other-Directed Directed Type of Nonliteral Language Past Future Past Future Past Future Sarcasm Jocularity Hyperbole Understatement Rhetorical question 33.30 47.60 48.40 43.50 17.90 30.00 0.00 44.40 0.00 47.20 1.40 53.80 0.00 31.80 38.50 0.00 22.20 0.00 23.80 1.90 11.20 0.00 4.30 9.10 7.70 10.00 44.40 9.40 0.00 13.60 Nondirected Past 44.40 28.60 38.90 52.20 35.90 Future 60.00 11.10 41.50 46.20 45.50

topic, 2(1) = 44.79, p < .001; targeting of statement, 2(1) = 22.27, p < .001; marking of statement, 2(1) = 9.53, p < .01; and statement type, 2(4) = 801.28, p < .001. Using information about significant findings from the exploratory multiway frequency analysis, a second analysis was conducted, using only the seven significant partial associations, to determine if a more parsimonious model would be favored. Our model converged after five iterations, and the goodness-of-fit test demonstrated that our more parsimonious model was not significantly worse than the fully saturated model at predicting cell frequencies, 2(26) = 31.95, p = .20, and was therefore favorable. A cutoff of 2.00 was used to judge significance of effect sizes. The three-way interaction between targeting, marking, and e-mail topic demonstrated a significant difference among cell frequencies ( = 0.11; z = 2.48), such that nonliteral statements in the past-oriented e-mails were 1.23 times more likely to be marked and to be directed at a target than were nonliteral statements in the future-oriented e-mails. In addition, the interaction between marking and statement type was significant for hyperbole ( = 0.63; z = 6.41), understatement ( = 0.35; z = 2.22), rhetorical question ( = 0.12; z = 4.91), and sarcasm ( = 0.65; z = 2.58). Sarcasm was 3.64 times more likely to be marked than to be unmarked, rhetorical question was 1.27 times more likely to be marked than unmarked, understatement was 2.04 times less likely to be marked than unmarked, and hyperbole was 3.53 times less likely to be marked than unmarked. Finally, all the first-order effects had significant effect sizes. E-mails written about past events were 1.71 times ( = 0.27; z = 6.33) more likely to contain nonliteral statements than were e-mails written about future events. Nonliteral statements were 1.44 times ( = 0.18; z = 4.41) more likely to be targeted at a source than to not be targeted at any source. Nonliteral statements were 3.11 times ( = 0.57; z = 6.20) more likely to be marked with discourse markers than to be unmarked. Finally, hyperbole was far more common than any other form of nonliteral language used;

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specifically, hyperbole was 75.27 times ( = 2.16; z = 21.97) more likely to be employed in e-mails than was any other form. Rhetorical question was 1.11 times less likely to be used, understatement was 2.11 times less likely to be used, jocularity was 5.20 times less likely to be used, and sarcasm was 6.19 times less likely to be used when compared with all other forms of nonliteral language.

The goal of the present study was to examine nonliteral language use in e-mail texts, in particular, to (a) establish frequency of usage of five types of nonliteral language in e-mail communication: hyperbole, understatement, rhetorical question, sarcasm, and jocularity; (b) test whether nonliteral language is used more frequently in descriptions of past events than in descriptions of future events; (c) determine whether discourse markers are used more often with particular forms of nonliteral language as a way of cuing the reader to nonliteral intent; and (d) investigate whether discourse markers are used more often when nonliteral statements are directed at a target as a way of mitigating face threat. Results showed that nonliteral statements were used in 94.30% of all e-mails and that the frequency of usage varied with e-mail topic. That is, as predicted, e-mail writers used more nonliteral statements when describing past events than when describing future events. It is likely that past events provided more details for the writer to draw on. In addition, the fact that the outcome of past events was known provided the opportunity for the discrepancy between expectations and outcome to be highlighted with nonliteral language. In describing past events the writer can comment on this discrepancy, making the past-oriented e-mails ripe for the use of nonliteral language. It was predicted that hyperbole and jocularity would be the most commonly used forms of nonliteral language, followed by rhetorical question and understatement, and finally, by sarcasm. As expected, hyperbole was used very frequently, likely because it is particularly useful in text-based communication as it allows the speaker to convey emphasis in the absence of paralinguistic cues. In fact, Kreuz and Roberts (1995) suggested that the exaggerated tone of voice used to convey nonliteral intent in FtF communication may be a form of hyperbole. That is, both prosodic cues in FtF communication and hyperbolic language in text can be used to stress particular words or ideas. In the present research, jocularity was produced much less frequently than expected. The low frequency of jocularity in the present study is in contrast with Gibbss (2000) finding that jocularity is very frequent in peer conversation. Perhaps the FtF synchronous conversation exploited in Gibbss study allows for a context that develops over time and across conversational turns, providing opportunity for subtler teasing. The e-mail context examined in the present study did not provide this kind of communicative bidirectionality and hence may have discouraged

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the use of jocularity. Rhetorical question was also not frequently used, perhaps because it is better suited to environments where the speaker is trying to solicit an attitude from his or her listener in a persuasive way (Blankenship & Craig, 2006; Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). This device might be more useful in situations where the discussion has bidirectionality, such as with instant messaging conversations of participants in Hancocks (2004) study. Sarcasm, as expected, was used quite infrequently, as was understatement. It was also predicted that rhetorical question, sarcasm, and jocularity would be marked more often than would hyperbole or understatement. As predicted, hyperbole and understatement were more likely to be unmarked than marked with discourse markers. The relative lack of risk with these forms mitigates the need for marking. As predicted, sarcasm was more likely to be marked than to be unmarked. It is very likely that the risk of being misunderstood motivated the writers use of discourse markers with sarcasm. Predictions for marking of rhetorical question and jocularity, however, were not upheld. We made no predictions about the specific types of markers that might be most commonly used, and in fact, no statistical comparison was conducted because of the very low cell frequencies among some of the different markers. However, it is worth commenting on the frequencies of different markers as a way of inferring which sorts of markers might be most useful to e-mail communicators. Hancock (2004) noted that punctuation was used more often than emoticons, amplifiers, and nonverbal signals in a computer-mediated setting. Also, ellipses were used more often than emoticons. Hancock speculated that punctuation might serve the same function in CMC settings that prosody serves in FtF settings. Other evidence suggests that emoticons are not widely used and do not always facilitate comprehension, even when a potential interpretation of conflicting messages is that of sarcasm (Walther & DAddario, 2001). In our e-mail corpus, emoticons were used infrequently, perhaps because these involve a directness that is not consistent with the indirect nature of nonliteral language. Regardless of whether the intent is to be critical, to tinge an offensive remark, or to exaggerate, nonliteral intent is, by definition, implied. There are communicative benefits to speaking nonliterally, such as appearing clever or sophisticated (Giora, Federman, Kehat, Fein, & Sabah, 2005). If speakers were to use emoticons more frequently their expressions would perhaps be rendered too obvious to benefit from the implicit functions of nonliteral language. In the present study, exclamation points were the most common discourse marker, followed by hyphens, parentheses, and ellipses. The exclamation points likely add emphasis in a way similar to using hyperbole. For example, saying work will no doubt be as joyful as ever!! seems to be more ardent than making the same statement without the use of exclamation points. Hyphens, parentheses, and ellipses could be construed as a category of text-separators, used to segment portions of the text to assist the reader in detecting those portions that are to be interpreted nonliterally. For instance, the statement Im going to become some kind of hermit and

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not leave the flat, except to do cool things like got [sic] to lectures . . . pretty exciting, huh? seems to make use of ellipses to separate the rhetorical, and sarcastic, question at the end of the sentence. We expected that statements directed at the e-mail recipient would be marked more often than statements that were directed at the e-mail writer, a third-party, or those that were not directed at any person in particular. It was expected that statements targeted at the e-mail recipient would be marked especially often when sarcasm or jocularity was being used. In fact, very few of the nonliteral statements were directed at the e-mail recipient. This could be because the e-mail writer was describing events of the most recent week or upcoming week and was instructed to address his or her e-mail to a friend whom he or she had not seen in a while. As such, the recipient would likely be someone who is not involved in the present day-today activities of the e-mail writer. This may mean that the writer had few opportunities to refer to the recipient in the context of the e-mail. We believe, however, that the scarcity of statements targeted at the e-mail recipient is also likely because of the risk involved in doing so. Targeted nonliteral statements may be too face-threatening for the e-mail context, even with discourse markers available. When categories were collapsed to examine statements that targeted any source (not just the e-mail recipient) versus statements that had no target, we found that targeted statements were more likely to be marked, particularly in the case of past-oriented e-mails. We suggest that in the case of past-oriented e-mails, the writer has the opportunity to make statements in reference to a target more readily. And in doing so, may be more likely to mark those targeted statements with discourse markers to mitigate the potential threat. We believe that the e-mail corpus used in the present research provides an accurate picture of nonliteral-language use in e-mails for a number of reasons. First, e-mail writers and recipients were peers and so e-mail writers ought to have felt comfortable conveying their attitudes with nonliteral language. Second, the participants were not instructed to adhere to any particular topic in their writing, other than to discuss recent or upcoming events of their choosing. As such, we assume that the content was quite representative of everyday e-mail communication. Finally, participants had no way of knowing that nonliteral language might be examined in their e-mails because the original investigation was not intended as a study of nonliteral language use. Thus, the use of nonliteral language in these e-mails was not likely a function of a particular response set. Kreuz et al. (1996) described several limitations that arose in their examination of figurative language use in literary text: (a) difficulty in determining whether a speaker means to be nonliteral, which is exacerbated by the judges lack of knowledge about topics being discussed; (b) difficulty in deciding where to begin and end a statement; and (c) difficulty determining in which category a statement fits, and in identifying statements that are highly lexicalized, such as with common instances of hyperbole. We also experienced these interpretive difficulties. Despite

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the challenges associated with studying such rich and varied texts, however, the present findings demonstrate that nonliteral language is used with some frequency in e-mail communication, even though e-mail is arguably a more impoverished setting than other communicative contexts. Future studies focusing on the use of nonliteral language in e-mail contexts ought to include examination of e-mails in a variety of relational contexts, such as e-mail used in professional relationships. In addition, examining responses to e-mails would be informative to determine how intended messages are interpreted by e-mail recipients. Finally, the function served by various discourse markers would make an interesting follow-up to this study. The choice of marker and the frequency of use may vary as a function of the discourse goal, but may also vary merely as a function of technical elements of the medium, such as which markers are built into the interface being used. In a plain-text format where the user has to create emoticons out of regular characters the usage might be less frequent than in a rich-text chat format where a window of creative emoticon options are ready to be selected and added to the text. One notable limitation of the present study is the possible lack of generalizability because of regional differences in nonliteral language use. The present corpus of e-mails was supplied primarily by a group of university students in Edinburgh, Scotland, with only a handful of participants residing outside the United Kingdom. Dress, Kreuz, Link, and Caucci (2008) demonstrated that regional differences in sarcasm use exist in an American sample. Given the findings of Dress et al., the generalizability of the present sample may not be guaranteed. The results of the present study suggest that individuals view nonliteral language as a legitimate communicative device in e-mail. Furthermore, they make use of the tools available to them in the communicative environment to enhance interpretability. The present results support Walthers (1992) social information processing theory by demonstrating that users avail of possible discourse markers as alternatives to paralinguistic cues found in FtF conversations, particularly when face threat is highest. In our sample, participants used less risky forms more frequently and demonstrated efforts to mark instances of nonliteral language, especially when the form is more risky. Sarcasm, in particular, was more likely to be marked than unmarked; the risk of using this form deemed the use of markers more necessary for appreciation of sarcastic intent. There is, of course, no guarantee that the steps taken to facilitate interpretation would be sufficient to ensure comprehension. In fact, recent evidence suggests that e-mail writers tend to overestimate the interpretability of their messages (Kruger, Epley, Parker, & Ng, 2005). Nonetheless, the present study provides evidence that e-mail writers show sensitivity to the possibility of miscommunication. The present study added a realistic assessment of nonliteral language use in peer e-mail to the burgeoning study of figurative language in CMC. To our knowledge, this is the first assessment of nonliteral language use in naturalistic e-mail communication. In an e-mail setting, the use of nonliteral language indicates

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that the potential benefits of using these forms outweigh the risks of being misunderstood. Nonliteral language provides a useful way to comment on the fact that things do not always turn out as expected. The present study makes a unique and important contribution to the literature on nonliteral language and CMC. In particular, it sheds light on a communicative behavior in the widespread, yet understudied, medium of e-mail.

Sample Nonliteral Statements

1. Obviously all the decent Christian men are in Edinburgh! 2. . . . and youll tolerate the clich if I say: I havent laughed so much in ages.

1. Must go to lectures, and attend these philosophy of science classes Im attending to make up for missed class last year, seems quite interesting, in a weird way, very different to my classes, for gods sake I just has to write notes and THINK! 2. If I dont go North then Ill probably go down alien rock, its still too cold to climb outdoors and I would rather avoid a repeat of the frostbite incident.

Rhetorical Question
1. My week has been fairly dull as I have been mostly working. (What else is new?) 2. Cant have that can we . . .

1. I should also get the coat hooks up this weekend if I can borrow the drill, and not burst any pipes or anything . . . piece of cake. 2. Work will no doubt be as joyful as ever and that is it!!

1. Been off sick with evil bastard laryngitis and been told to stay at home and not talk to anyone, Im wondering if my flatmates are paying the doctor, still everyones been really nice. 2. Were getting a TV!!!! So that might be enough excitement for us to handle!!!
Note: Each statement is reprinted here exactly as written in the original, with no grammatical or spelling corrections made.

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1. Each of the five forms of nonliteral language examined in the present study can be linked to ironic intent, and as such, some scholars group these forms as types of verbal irony (e.g., Gibbs, 2000). However, there is some disagreement about this nomenclature. Forms such as hyperbole, understatement, and rhetorical question need not always convey ironic intent. That is, one can use each of those forms to be nonliteral without intending to mean something different from what is spoken. As such, in the present work we examined the use of these forms but do not refer to them collectively as forms of verbal irony. Instead, we refer to these forms as nonliteral. 2. Because Kreuz et al. (1996) examined literary texts, the forms of figurative language that were deemed to be relevant varied slightly in their nomenclature than those examined in other studies of nonliteral language use. In particular, their category called irony referred to instances within the subcategories of Socratic irony, irony of fate, verbal irony, and sarcasm.

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