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''Should Be Fun−−Not!'' : 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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Tennessee. speakers tend to employ nonliteral language when it can reasonably be perceived by their conversational Alastair J. Whalen. This research was presented at the July 2008 meeting of the Society for Text and Discourse in Memphis. Department of Psychology. such as hyperbole. such as e-mail. and were marked with discourse markers more often. irony. e-mail. onliteral language encompasses a variety of forms and can be used to highlight a discrepancy between expectation and reality (Gibbs. The present study examined rates of usage for various forms of nonliteral language in 210 e-mail messages written by young adults. this suggests that the e-mail writer might use discourse tools that facilitate comprehension on the part of the recipient. and participants used an average of 2. computer-mediated communication. 2013 . University of Calgary.90 nonliteral statements per e-mail. 2500 University Drive NW.sagepub. e-mail: jwhalen@ucalgary. 1994). Alberta.30% of all e-mails there was at least one nonliteral statement. Alberta. & Authors’ Note: The authors thank Carly McMorris and Jacque Vanderveen for their assistance in coding nonliteral statements. In 94.sagepub. Whalen Penny M. 263 N Downloaded from jls.sagepub. Keywords:  nonliteral language. pragmatics. Nonliteral language can pose interpretive challenges because. in the form of a Canada Graduate Scholarship to Juanita M. Gill. Attardo. We also thank Howard Giles and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on this article. Calgary. and was supported in part by a Région de Bourgogne (France) FABER Postdoctoral Fellowship (05512AA06S2469) and an Economic and a Social Research Council (UK) Postgraduate Research Studentship (R00429934162) to Alastair J. In a computermediated communicative setting. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Juanita M. Pexman University of Calgary. Canada Journal of Language and Social Psychology Volume 28 Number 3 September 2009 263-280 © 2009 Sage Publications 10. unlike a literal interpretation. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. such as sarcasm. Pexman. yet are savvy to the tools available to them in this communicative medium. Gill Northwestern University.1177/0261927X09335253 http://jls. This indicates that e-mail authors are sensitive to the risky nature of nonliteral language use in e-mail.“Should Be Fun—Not!” Incidence and Marking of Nonliteral Language in E-Mail Juanita M. were used much less frequently than other less risky forms. Evanston. Canada T2N hosted at http://online. the intended one is never explicitly stated but instead relies on inference (Eisterhold. Results showed that forms of nonliteral language that are typically deemed to be at Tel Aviv University on April 6. Whalen and a Standard Research Grant to Penny discourse analysis. Illinois According to Kreuz’s principle of inferability.

and jocularity ( at Tel Aviv University on April 6. Kreuz. yet our understanding of how communicators deal with this medium is still largely unexplored. and the use of these forms has been linked to ironic intent (Gibbs. hyperbole. but are not limited to. understatement. Past research has established the frequencies of nonliteral language use in some of these various communication media. or in more formal forms of communication. In addition.” Finally. in the first study to compare the use of nonliteral language in FtF and computer-mediated communication (using an instant messaging format). such as “I wouldn’t mind winning the lottery. Forms of nonliteral language include. rhetorical question. the intended meaning is counterfactual to the literal interpretation of the statement. jocularity is language that conveys a different meaning than the one spoken without being strictly counterfactual. These five forms are the focus of the present work. 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. understatement. rhetorical question. Jocularity was the most commonly used form of nonliteral language in peer conversation. such as “Does she realize she looks crazy?” In sarcasm. 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 Downloaded from jls. Hancock. such as letters or literary texts. 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. hyperbole. rhetorical question. sarcasm. Furthermore. over the telephone.264   Journal of Language and Social Psychology Boxer. rhetorical question.” Rhetorical questions are questions presented without the expectation for a response. with sarcasm. Johnson. Hancock (2004) reported that sarcasm and rhetorical question were the forms used most frequently in instant messages.” Understatement is language that underplays or diminishes the reality of a situation. 2000. to our knowledge. sarcasm. 1996). results showed that hyperbole. 2004. In Gibbs’s analysis. has not yet been examined: e-mail. such as saying “I have tons of paperwork to do. and jocularity were each used for critical and humorous intent. We examined these forms because their use has been explored in previous production studies. 2006). (1996) documented the use of many figurative language forms including hyperbole. This examination is important because the use of e-mail as a communicative medium is widespread. 2000. Hyperbole accounted for approximately one fourth of all nonliteral statements in these text passages. Hancock. and understatement being the next most frequent forms. 2004). 2013 .sagepub.1 Hyperbole involves exaggeration or overstatement of reality.2 and understatement in a corpus of contemporary literary texts. & Bertus. in instant messaging and text messaging. The purpose of the present study was to examine the frequency of nonliteral language use in a communicative context that. such as “I just love ignorant people. Kreuz et al. irony. Roberts. For instance.

The principle of inferability (Kreuz. at Tel Aviv University on April 6. The use of nonliteral language in CMC environments provides an additional test of these accounts. 2000). Oberlander. 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. speakers must anticipate potential sources of misunderstanding to tailor statements for accurate perception by the listener (Hancock. Gergle.Whalen et al. social information processing theory (Walther.sagepub. many of these arguments would also apply to the present e-mail situation. conventional wisdom is that nonliteral language in e-mail should be avoided because. 2002. Indeed. Gill. 2000.. For instance. 1996) proposes that speakers tend to use nonliteral language when they are reasonably certain that it will be understood as intended. As such. 2008. & Christie. Keysar. laughter (Gibbs. although speakers’ ability to adopt the addressee’s perspective is imperfect (e. and communicative history (Katz & Pexman. 1996). 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. 2013 . 2006) but also in synchronous environments such as instant messaging or text-chat (e. for a review). Relatedly. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   265 how speakers use these environments in light of the challenges. Hancock. & Oberlander. using tools available to them in the environment. Oberlander & Gill. Consistent with this notion. French. Dunham. facial expression (Kreuz.. 2002). Keysar & Henly. Williams. Consistent with the social presence theory. 2007). 2006. 2003). 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. & Purdy. the social information processing theory suggests that in CMC nonliteral language use will be adapted to enhance the likelihood of interpretation. There is a need for further research in this area. Social presence theory (Short. as the social information processing theory would predict (see Walther & Parks. the e-mail environment may offer a protective benefit to those wishing to Downloaded from jls. without nonverbal cues. Previous research has established that speakers attempt this monitoring. many important paralinguistic cues are absent in e-mail. the ambiguity inherent in nonliteral language is typically resolved via a host of linguistic and paralinguistic cues: the speaker’s choice of words (Colston & O’Brien. 2006). the risk for misinterpretation is high (Eisterhold et al. 2005).g. 1994). & Austin. 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. For this to be accomplished. The nature of this adaptation is investigated here. In FtF contexts. 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.. Conversely. 1997). & Silver. one might predict an absence of nonliteral language in e-mail texts. 2000). That is. the speaker’s tone of voice (Bryant & Fox Tree. the extent to which the statement is incongruent with preceding events (Ivanko & Pexman.

1995) or by exacerbating the criticism (Colston. Rhetorical question allows the speaker to convey an attitude indirectly without committing to using a more critical form of nonliteral language. The approach taken in the present study offers an important extension to Hancock’s work. Kreuz. 1995).com at Tel Aviv University on April 6. Hyperbole may permit the speaker to emphasize particular words. 1996. This face-saving feature (Brown & Levinson. jocularity can serve as a more gentle way to tease without employing the level of criticism in sarcasm (Gibbs. our findings ought to extend to other asynchronous text-based communication forms. In our study. they are afforded more time to craft their message. e-mail writers should be particularly keen to use any Downloaded from jls. Second. participants were not given irony-prone topics about which to communicate. such as blogs. which could facilitate the use of nonliteral language. e-mail writers need not respond in real-time as they would in FtF communication. Hancock used materials that were designed to encourage the use of nonliteral language. 1987) may encourage nonliteral language use in e-mails. First. 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. Different forms of nonliteral language are used to achieve different pragmatic functions.sagepub. Each of these forms allows the speaker to express a personal attitude indirectly. Marking Nonliteral Language in E-Mail Making one’s communicative goal clear can be a challenge when multiple interpretations are possible. in the absence of paralinguistic cues. & Winner. also highlighting potential nonliteral intent (Roberts & Kreuz. but each form serves different pragmatic functions. Finally. 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. however. In addition. Hyperbole strengthens the contrast between the literal interpretation of a statement and the context in which it is employed and. Understatement might be used to temper the degree of contrast between the literal message and the attitude felt by the speaker. 2013 .266   Journal of Language and Social Psychology use risky forms of expression because the accountability for making a faux pas is much less than it would be in FtF communication. 2000). where writers are largely unconstrained in topic and write without immediate and ongoing feedback. which may be more or less useful in e-mail communication. Hancock used a synchronous CMC environment (instant messaging) whereas the present study examined another form of CMC: asynchronous e-mail communication. 1994). but is widely held to achieve both humorous and critical effect (Roberts & Kreuz. In addition. Sarcasm can be employed to convey one’s attitude either by muting the critical nature of the remark (Dews. 1994). Kaplan. In particular. 2000. therefore. As such. it seems likely that the present findings are representative of how nonliteral language is used in typical e-mail communications. or elements of the situation. serves to highlight the potential nonliteral interpretation (Colston & O’Brien. As such. As such. Kreuz & Roberts. 1997).

such as “not!”). Sarcasm is also employed to reduce the threat to the listener. 2003. parentheses. Thus. we should see some evidence of that in the present examination of e-mail communication. ellipses. 1987. Downloaded from at Tel Aviv University on April 6. 1987. 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. 1996. In the present study.. In comparisons across differing social groups. if participants are inclined to use nonliteral language in e-mail. Pexman & Zvaigzne. it also tends to involve an evaluative intent that is critical. quotation marks. clarify potentially controversial remarks (such as with clarifications or emoticons). Although sarcasm can serve a face-saving function. These markers either physically segment a portion of text (such as with the use of ellipses or parentheses). instances of nonliteral language were found to be more frequent among acquaintances and friends than among strangers (Eisterhold et al. it seems reasonable to assume that sarcasm tends to be the most threatening and risky form of nonliteral language..sagepub. Kotthoff. 1996). In text-based communication. question marks. we examined nonliteral language use in casual e-mails intended for friends. and text portions presented entirely in uppercase letters. Some forms of nonliteral language are more threatening than others. and the listener. Each of these discourse markers was identified by Hancock (2004) as a text-based cue to nonliteral language in CMC. 1999. hyphens. amplifications (words used to modulate the valence of a statement. add emphasis (such as with the use of exclamation points). the listener can unpack the indirect comment with the use of available cues without facing a potentially critical comment directly (Brown & Levinson. 2013 . Jorgensen. hyperbole and other such forms often do not carry this critical evaluative intent (e. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   267 cues available to them in crafting their message. Colston. 1992). 1987). to assist in accurate interpretation.Whalen et al. and they represented the range of ways in which participants could augment their message when composing e-mails. clarifications (explicit remarks used to note nonliteral intent. When a sarcastic speaker states the opposite of what is meant. This allows the speaker. Kreuz. The risk involved when using nonliteral language with friends is typically lower than when using it with strangers (Brown & Levinson. nonlinguistic statements (segments of text that do not constitute actual words. 2004). 2006). such as “mmmmmm”). The discourse markers considered for the present study included exclamation points. and the forms that are typically less critical are less face-threatening. Brown and Levinson (1987) noted that both understatement and hyperbole can be used to hedge one’s commitment to a topic. 1997). such as adverbs or adjectives). The widespread use of indirect speech acts conveys an attempt on the speaker’s part to respect the listener’s need to maintain face (Brown & Levinson. As such. or generally add an affective component to the writing that might otherwise be absent.g. emoticons. to save face by speaking indirectly. asterisks. 1996). Walther. discourse markers can be used to achieve this goal (Kreuz.

hyperbole) would be marked with discourse markers less often than the more risky forms (e. 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..g. sarcasm ought to be used very infrequently because of the relative risk with using this form. Predictions In the present study. this goal would be less relevant in an asynchronous e-mail setting such as ours. This should be particularly true when the target of the remark is the e-mail recipient. making the expected frequency of this form relatively low.. 1994. Because the discrepancy between expectations and reality is more salient after the fact (when reality is known and can be compared with expectations). The rationale for this predicted pattern is based on findings from previous production studies.g. Certainly. rhetorical question should almost always be marked with a question mark. the risk of offending the target is great and warrants the use of discourse markers to ensure the recipient can discern the appropriate interpretation. 1994. When a target is referenced by a at Tel Aviv University on April 6. Understatement has not always been found to occur with the same incidence as hyperbole. the discrepancy that often exists between expectations and reality provides a rich context for commentary via nonliteral remarks.268   Journal of Language and Social Psychology There is reason to believe that nonliteral language use may vary as a function of e-mail topic.sagepub. and finally by sarcasm. it is easier to make specific and detailed reference to events that have already transpired.. p. as well as the relative risk of using each form in e-mail. it was predicted that hyperbole and jocularity would be the most frequently used forms of nonliteral language in e-mail communication. Jocularity is a less threatening counterpart to sarcasm and can be quite frequent in peer communication (Gibbs. Roberts & Kreuz. 1994). 161). That is. followed by rhetorical question and understatement. Second. hyperbole is widely used in text (Kreuz et al. sarcasm). 2000. nonliteral remarks were expected to be marked with discourse markers more often when the remark was directed at a particular target. it is likely that the writer could make more nonliteral statements in describing a past event outcome. 2013 . the less threatening forms of nonliteral language (e. 1996) and is more often used to convey positive regard as it exaggerates the degree of reality (Gibbs. That is. particularly in the impoverished CMC setting. 2000). First. It was also expected that the different forms of nonliteral language would be marked by discourse markers with different frequencies. In particular. there is a strong convention of marking questions with a question mark. Although these questions are not sincere.. Downloaded from jls. it is sometimes used to convey negative regard as it downplays reality (Gibbs. Also. Finally. Kreuz et al. Rhetorical question is commonly used to “manage the discourse” (Roberts & Kreuz. 1996). The e-mail writer should mark sarcasm and jocularity more often because of the increased face threat involved when using those forms.

All cases of disagreement were discussed until full agreement was reached.g. Participants were primarily students. Participants were instructed to write two brief e-mails to a close friend to whom they had not spoken in some time.69%. Ireland. Participants were instructed to spend approximately 10 minutes writing each e-mail. Method Participants One-hundred and five native English-speaking adults. The interrater agreement for identifying a statement as nonliteral was 86.Whalen et al. Gill et al. 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. the interrater agreement for classifying each statement into one of five types was 98. Once identified as nonliteral. and the United States (see Gill. Oberlander & Gill. that this is a relatively diverse population. for further details).69%.. Participants were instructed to write continuously. Downloaded from jls. New Zealand. a small number (12) of whom were in Canada. participated in the present study.sagepub. with students originating from throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom. 2013 . Samples of each of the five types of nonliteral statements are presented in the appendix. however. 2006. from Edinburgh. 2004.. 2006) for studies investigating the relationship between personality and (nonfigurative) language and personality perception in e-mail communication. In addition.60). Materials and Procedure The e-mail texts analyzed in the present study were originally used by Gill and colleagues (e. We note. the link was often forwarded to friends. SD = 4. or recent graduates.34 years. Australia. as the study was Web based. A second coder then applied the same coding scheme to all the e-mail texts. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   269 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. 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. and were told not to edit their writing or to correct at Tel Aviv University on April 6. 37 males and 68 females (mean age = 24. Scotland. in English prose. 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). and interrater agreement was calculated.

0125.02 words per e-mail (SD = 105.270   Journal of Language and Social Psychology Results The mean word count for the past-oriented e-mails was 284. The cell frequencies were particularly low for remarks that were directed at the e-mail recipient. p < . sarcasm. other-directed (at a third party). including the 4 first-order effects. All data were analyzed using multiway frequency analysis. one for remarks that are not directed at a target and one for remarks that are directed at any target (e-mail recipient. and targeting of statements (directed at a target or not directed at a target). t(104) = 2. we collapsed the original four categories of this variable into two categories.11 (SD = 2. The relative percentages of the five types of nonliteral language are presented in Table 1. and for the future-oriented e-mails the mean word count was 221.0095) than when writing future-oriented e-mails (M = . To control for the difference in mean word count between the past-oriented and future-oriented e-mails. Even after controlling for the different word counts in this way results showed that. SD = .20% of the time. The mean number of nonliteral statements was 3. with only 3. Table 4 provides the percentages of remarks that were self-directed. Nonliteral statements were directed at a target 56. An exploratory hierarchical analysis was conducted to determine the fit of the model. type of nonliteral statement (hyperbole. Our sample included 608 nonliteral statements.50% of the time.sagepub. and each marked statement was accompanied by an average of 1. had highly variable cell counts and had many cells containing observations of less than five.49 (SD = 0. Downloaded from jls. 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). as expected.0080). or some third party not involved in the e-mail communication). 1996). The targeting variable. understatement. SD = .0093.01.82). the power of the multiway frequency analysis is compromised (Tabachnick & Fidell. e-mail writers themselves. and nondirected in each of the e-mail topic conditions. We checked for gender differences in each of these aspects of the statements and none were significant.90 words per e-mail (SD = 125. a proportion was calculated by dividing the number of nonliteral utterances in each e-mail by the word count for that e-mail.35). rhetorical at Tel Aviv University on April 6.74) discourse markers.05) in the future-oriented e-mails. 2013 . marking of statements (marked with discourse markers or unmarked). in particular. reported next. Table 3 provides the frequency of each type of discourse marker used with nonliteral language. Table 2 displays the instances of marking for each nonliteral language type: nonliteral statements were marked with discourse markers 56.90% of those remarks being targeted at the e-mail recipient.80. To combat the potential problems associated with low cell counts. If cell frequencies are less than five for more than 20% of the total cells in the analysis. participants used more nonliteral statements when writing past-oriented e-mails (M = .19) in the past-oriented e-mails and 2. or jocularity).69 (SD = 3.

The further inclusion of the fourth-order effect offered no additional reduction in the amount of unexplained variance.20 6.20 92.00 45.50 10.05.10 83. p < .30 72.78. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   271 Table 1 Relative Percentages of Five Types of Nonliteral Language.90 81. as was the interaction between targeting of statement and marking.90 87. second-. as was the case with the third-order effects. p = .30 47.70 7.50 61. χ2(1) = 5.001. Finally.70 3.90 61.90 50. χ2(4) = . p < . p < .40 4.86.60 70. χ2(13) = 22. p < .90 6.50 6. the interaction between the statement type and marking of statements was significant. Future Oriented All E-Mails 10. indicating that the inclusion of at least some of the first-. with the second-order effects included in the model there was a significant reduction in variance. The interaction between e-mail topic.27.20 Future Oriented All E-Mails 95. 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. targeting.05. In at Tel Aviv University on April 6. and marking was significant.50 68. 2013 . χ2(15) = 82.60 Table 2 Percentage of Nonliteral Statements With Discourse Markers.925. and thirdorder effects can be used to accurately predict cell frequencies. In addition. the 4 third-order effects.001.sagepub.90.40 10.60 68. and 1 fourth-order effect. χ2(1) = 7.60 5.10 80.30 the 6 second-order effects. 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. p < .001. indicating that (for all significant partial associations) there were dependencies between those cells in particular. p < . χ2(7) = 877. the main effects of each of the four variables were significant: e-mail Downloaded from jls.00 88. 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 60. Tests of the partial associations showed that 7 of the possible 15 effects were significant.60 10.01.Whalen et al. χ2(4) = 63.

30 0.00 7.10 0.00 14.00 Rhetorical 4.40 0.50 0.00 0.00 4.80 0.30 0. .00 27. .00 22. asterisks were considered a discourse marker.40 2. “it looks perfect out today .00 0.60 at Tel Aviv University on April 6. not!”).00 27.00 5.00 0. such as “mmmmmm”.00 0.10 5.00 19.00 4.00 0.00 0.80 0. but as there were no instances of asterisks marking nonliteral language in the present study.80 52.40 23.40 14.00 30. nonlinguistic cues are portions of text that do not constitute actual words.00 0.60 0.60 14.10 33.00     question Note: Following Hancock (2004).90 2. Amplifications are utterances that modulate the valence of a remark often by the use of adverbs and adjectives.90 0.60 42.40 10.00 14. this type of marker is not presented in this table.00 28.30 4.00 0.00 Hyperbole 14.00 20.60 13.80 0.60 19.00 0.70 72.70 0.30 0. clarifications are utterances that explain the existence of nonliteral utterances.80 0.80 0.10 Hyperbole 6.00     question Future oriented Sarcasm 33.60 15.70 0.00 3.70 0.60 Table 3 Percentages of Types of Discourse Markers Used With Five Types of Nonliteral Statements.00 3.00 19.00 0..g.50 5.272   21.00 23. such as “quite” in the phrase “that’s quite a dress”.00 0.20 Understatement 9.30 Jocularity 42.00 20.40 0.30 0.30 18.40 0.20 0.00 7.70 15. as a Function of E-Mail Topic Condition Quotation Exclamation Question All Nonlinguistic Ellipsis Marks Points Marks Emoticon Caps Amplification Cues Parentheses Clarification Hyphen Downloaded from jls.00 0.00 0.00 0.30 47. .80 11.60 Rhetorical 11.00 0.40 1.00 0.80 0.50 13.30 0.90 28.00 57.00 0.00 4.20 0.00 0.60 55. 2013 Past oriented Sarcasm 10.sagepub.00 31.60 16. such as “not!” following a sarcastic remark (e.00 0.00 0.80 Jocularity 16.00 0.70 7.10 0.00 0.80 4.90 1. The percentages in each column do not sum to 100 as multiple markers could be used with each utterance type.20 Understatement 15.40 28.70 5.

79.00 23.Whalen et al.20 45.70 10.00 was used to judge significance of effect at Tel Aviv University on April 6. Finally. z = 4. p < . p < . p < . understatement (λ = −0.41). 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. Using information about significant findings from the exploratory multiway frequency analysis. Future 60.20) more likely to be marked with discourse markers than to be unmarked.22).27. such that nonliteral statements in the past-oriented e-mails were 1. z = 6. Nonliteral statements were 3.10   7.18.48).00 31.40 53.95. χ2(1) = 22. Our model converged after five iterations. a second analysis was conducted. Sarcasm was 3.00 47. In addition.90 11.10 41. and was therefore favorable.50 46.001. rhetorical question (λ = 0.30 9. the interaction between marking and statement type was significant for hyperbole (λ = −0. targeting of statement.63.80 38.41) more likely to be targeted at a source than to not be targeted at any source.28. 2013 .60 Nondirected Past 44. E-mails written about past events were 1.sagepub. Downloaded from jls.00 44. hyperbole was far more common than any other form of nonliteral language used.001. using only the seven significant partial associations.40 0. χ2(4) = 801. understatement was 2.01.00 44. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   273 Table 4 Percentage of Nonliteral Statements Directed at Self.04 times less likely to be marked than unmarked. The three-way interaction between targeting.90 30. A cutoff of ±2.11 times (λ = 0. z = 2.00   4. to determine if a more parsimonious model would be favored.20 0. Finally. and sarcasm (λ = 0.60 48.00 22.20 0. and hyperbole was 3.20 35.44 times (λ = 0.80   0. rhetorical question was 1. all the first-order effects had significant effect sizes. χ2(1) = 9.58).30 47.57.40 28.60 38.40 43.20   1.50 17.33) more likely to contain nonliteral statements than were e-mails written about future events.50 0. p < . p = . or Nondirected. marking of statement.27 times more likely to be marked than unmarked.00   0.71 times (λ = 0. and e-mail topic demonstrated a significant difference among cell frequencies (λ = 0. χ2(1) = 44.91). z = −2.20.64 times more likely to be marked than to be unmarked.23 times more likely to be marked and to be directed at a target than were nonliteral statements in the future-oriented e-mails. marking.53.001.00 11. 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. z = −6. Nonliteral statements were 1.80 1. z = 6.40   0.90 topic. Other.53 times less likely to be marked than unmarked.40 9.00 13. and statement type. z = 2. z = 4. χ2(26) = 31.

It was predicted that hyperbole and jocularity would be the most commonly used forms of nonliteral language.30% of all e-mails and that the frequency of usage varied with e-mail at Tel Aviv University on April 6. z = 21.11 times less likely to be used. In addition.sagepub. In the present research. e-mail writers used more nonliteral statements when describing past events than when describing future events. providing opportunity for subtler teasing. understatement.27 times (λ = 2.19 times less likely to be used when compared with all other forms of nonliteral language. rhetorical question. Results showed that nonliteral statements were used in 94. jocularity was produced much less frequently than expected.20 times less likely to be used. In fact. The low frequency of jocularity in the present study is in contrast with Gibbs’s (2000) finding that jocularity is very frequent in peer conversation. and sarcasm was 6. In describing past events the writer can comment on this discrepancy. both prosodic cues in FtF communication and hyperbolic language in text can be used to stress particular words or ideas. to (a) establish frequency of usage of five types of nonliteral language in e-mail communication: hyperbole. and jocularity. Perhaps the FtF synchronous conversation exploited in Gibbs’s study allows for a context that develops over time and across conversational turns. understatement was 2.16.97) more likely to be employed in e-mails than was any other form. jocularity was 5. as predicted. Discussion The goal of the present study was to examine nonliteral language use in e-mail texts. 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. 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. As expected. The e-mail context examined in the present study did not provide this kind of communicative bidirectionality and hence may have discouraged Downloaded from jls. making the past-oriented e-mails ripe for the use of nonliteral language. and finally. by sarcasm. Rhetorical question was 1. (b) test whether nonliteral language is used more frequently in descriptions of past events than in descriptions of future events. It is likely that past events provided more details for the writer to draw on. hyperbole was used very frequently. hyperbole was 75.274   Journal of Language and Social Psychology specifically. followed by rhetorical question and understatement. 2013 . (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. 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.11 times less likely to be used. in particular. sarcasm. likely because it is particularly useful in text-based communication as it allows the speaker to convey emphasis in the absence of paralinguistic cues. That is.

In the present study. even when a potential interpretation of conflicting messages is that of sarcasm (Walther & D’Addario. There are communicative benefits to speaking nonliterally. Hancock speculated that punctuation might serve the same function in CMC settings that prosody serves in FtF settings. This device might be more useful in situations where the discussion has bidirectionality. such as appearing clever or sophisticated (Giora. such as with instant messaging conversations of participants in Hancock’s (2004) study. 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.sagepub. 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. and nonverbal signals in a computer-mediated setting. However. the statement “I’m going to become some kind of hermit and Downloaded from jls. were not upheld. and ellipses could be construed as a category of “text-separators. Fein.” used to segment portions of the text to assist the reader in detecting those portions that are to be interpreted nonliterally. Hyphens. Sarcasm. Kehat. as expected. The exclamation points likely add emphasis in a way similar to using hyperbole. In our e-mail corpus. 2001). however. It is very likely that the risk of being misunderstood motivated the writers’ use of discourse markers with sarcasm. Federman. sarcasm was more likely to be marked than to be unmarked. As predicted. was used quite infrequently. Other evidence suggests that emoticons are not widely used and do not always facilitate comprehension. sarcasm. amplifiers. Predictions for marking of rhetorical question and jocularity. as was understatement. Rhetorical question was also not frequently used. Roberts & Kreuz. followed by hyphens. parentheses. The relative lack of risk with these forms mitigates the need for marking. and in fact. and ellipses. exclamation points were the most common discourse marker. hyperbole and understatement were more likely to be unmarked than marked with discourse markers. 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. 2006. ellipses were used more often than emoticons. emoticons were used infrequently. or to exaggerate. and jocularity would be marked more often than would hyperbole or understatement. & Sabah. 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 at Tel Aviv University on April 6. nonliteral intent is. Hancock (2004) noted that punctuation was used more often than emoticons. 2013 . 1994). We made no predictions about the specific types of markers that might be most commonly used.Whalen et al. Also. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   275 the use of jocularity. to tinge an offensive remark. implied. parentheses. For instance. It was also predicted that rhetorical question. perhaps because these involve a directness that is not consistent with the indirect nature of nonliteral language. As predicted. Regardless of whether the intent is to be critical. by definition. 2005). no statistical comparison was conducted because of the very low cell frequencies among some of the different markers. For example.

And in doing so. may be more likely to mark those targeted statements with discourse markers to mitigate the potential threat. particularly in the case of past-oriented e-mails. pretty exciting. . As such. It was expected that statements targeted at the e-mail recipient would be marked especially often when sarcasm or jocularity was being used. very few of the nonliteral statements were directed at the e-mail recipient. We also experienced these interpretive difficulties. This may mean that the writer had few opportunities to refer to the recipient in the context of the e-mail. however. Targeted nonliteral statements may be too face-threatening for the e-mail context. the participants were not instructed to adhere to any particular topic in their writing. such as with common instances of hyperbole. even with discourse markers available. huh?” seems to make use of ellipses to separate the rhetorical. the recipient would likely be someone who is not involved in the present day-today activities of the e-mail writer. Second. 2013 . . except to do cool things like got [sic] to lectures .sagepub. that the scarcity of statements targeted at the e-mail recipient is also likely because of the risk involved in doing so. 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. Kreuz et al. and at Tel Aviv University on April 6. First. 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. 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. which is exacerbated by the judges’ lack of knowledge about topics being discussed. Finally. 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. and in identifying statements that are highly lexicalized. and (c) difficulty determining in which category a statement fits. In fact. the use of nonliteral language in these e-mails was not likely a function of a particular response set. (b) difficulty in deciding where to begin and end a statement. question at the end of the sentence. 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. Despite Downloaded from jls. a third-party. We believe. Thus. (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. other than to discuss recent or upcoming events of their choosing. When categories were collapsed to examine statements that targeted any source (not just the e-mail recipient) versus statements that had no target. e-mail writers and recipients were peers and so e-mail writers ought to have felt comfortable conveying their attitudes with nonliteral language. or those that were not directed at any person in particular.276   Journal of Language and Social Psychology not leave the flat. As such. we found that targeted statements were more likely to be marked. we assume that the content was quite representative of everyday e-mail communication.

the use of nonliteral language indicates Downloaded from jls. examining responses to e-mails would be informative to determine how intended messages are interpreted by e-mail recipients. To our knowledge. The present study added a realistic assessment of nonliteral language use in peer e-mail to the burgeoning study of figurative language in CMC. There is. recent evidence suggests that e-mail writers tend to overestimate the interpretability of their messages (Kruger. such as which markers are built into the interface being at Tel Aviv University on April 6. 2013 . of course. the present study provides evidence that e-mail writers show sensitivity to the possibility of miscommunication. no guarantee that the steps taken to facilitate interpretation would be sufficient to ensure comprehension. In our sample. but may also vary merely as a function of technical elements of the medium. the present findings demonstrate that nonliteral language is used with some frequency in e-mail communication. One notable limitation of the present study is the possible lack of generalizability because of regional differences in nonliteral language use. particularly when face threat is highest. the risk of using this form deemed the use of markers more necessary for appreciation of sarcastic intent.. the generalizability of the present sample may not be guaranteed. Given the findings of Dress et al. however. The present results support Walther’s (1992) social information processing theory by demonstrating that users avail of possible discourse markers as alternatives to paralinguistic cues found in FtF conversations. & Ng. participants used less risky forms more frequently and demonstrated efforts to mark instances of nonliteral language. they make use of the tools available to them in the communicative environment to enhance interpretability. Link. even though e-mail is arguably a more impoverished setting than other communicative contexts. The results of the present study suggest that individuals view nonliteral language as a legitimate communicative device in e-mail. the function served by various discourse markers would make an interesting follow-up to this study. Finally. In fact. was more likely to be marked than unmarked. In an e-mail setting. Sarcasm.Whalen et al. The choice of marker and the frequency of use may vary as a function of the discourse goal. Furthermore. Scotland. Dress. Epley. especially when the form is more risky. The present corpus of e-mails was supplied primarily by a group of university students in Edinburgh. in particular. this is the first assessment of nonliteral language use in naturalistic e-mail communication. 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. Nonetheless. such as e-mail used in professional relationships.sagepub. with only a handful of participants residing outside the United Kingdom. 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. 2005). Parker. In addition. Kreuz. and Caucci (2008) demonstrated that regional differences in sarcasm use exist in an American sample. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   277 the challenges associated with studying such rich and varied texts.

I’m wondering if my flatmates are paying the doctor. still everyone’s been really nice. . Nonliteral language provides a useful way to comment on the fact that things do not always turn out as expected. Must go to lectures. I should also get the coat hooks up this weekend if I can borrow the drill. 2. Been off sick with evil bastard laryngitis and been told to stay at home and not talk to anyone. medium of e-mail. (What else is new?) 2. seems quite interesting. If I don’t go North then I’ll probably go down alien rock.sagepub. . . . The present study makes a unique and important contribution to the literature on nonliteral language and CMC.278   Journal of Language and Social Psychology that the potential benefits of using these forms outweigh the risks of being misunderstood. Can’t have that can we . and attend these philosophy of science classes I’m attending to make up for missed class last year. My week has been fairly dull as I have been mostly working. and not burst any pipes or anything . Rhetorical Question 1. it sheds light on a communicative behavior in the widespread. Downloaded from jls. it’s still too cold to climb outdoors and I would rather avoid a repeat of the frostbite incident. yet understudied. . piece of cake. 2. . very different to my classes. . Sarcasm 1. and you’ll tolerate the cliché if I say: “I haven’t laughed so much in ages. Obviously all the decent Christian men are in Edinburgh! 2. for god’s sake I just has to write notes and THINK! 2.” Understatement 1. with no grammatical or spelling corrections made. Work will no doubt be as joyful as ever and that is it!! Jocularity 1. We’re 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. Appendix Sample Nonliteral Statements Hyperbole at Tel Aviv University on April 6. 2013 . In particular. in a weird way.

S. 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. H. 523-553. Politeness: Some universals in language use. understatement. 447-463. Metaphor and Symbol. & O’Brien. & Fox Tree. (2000). pp. 15. & Levinson. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. (1995). Is there an ironic tone of voice? Language and Speech. M. verbal irony. Downloaded from jls. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. G. Emotion rating from short blog texts.. J. Children’s comprehension of critical and complimentary forms of verbal irony. R. 1. (2000). E. 257-277.Whalen et al. E. UK: Cambridge University Press. irony of fate. J. Hancock. & Winner. 23. Regional variation in the use of sarcasm. (1996) examined literary texts.. R.. Colston. Clift. R. 19. 38. E. Personality and language: The projection and perception of personality in computermediated communication. Instead. Giora. J. Gibbs. P. Jr. we refer to these forms as “nonliteral. T. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2008). and as such. (2000). 25. M. Florence. 347-367. Humor.. References Blankenship. 1121-1124. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. Fein. 2013 . Edinburgh.K..... Federman. Rhetorical question use and resistance to persuasion: An attitude strength analysis. E. Gill. Gergle.. March). one can use each of those forms to be nonliteral without intending to mean something different from what is spoken. J. 24-45. A. H. T. and understanding. P. Journal of Pragmatics. Italy. L. 1239-1256. & Craig. J. J. Personality and Individual Differences. D. Gibbs. (2005). Colston. 23-39. Kreuz. Irony aptness. 111-128. (1994). L. Dunham. Journal of Cognition and Development. at Tel Aviv University on April 6. 30. Verbal irony use in face-to-face and computer-mediated conversations. J. 27.. R. (2006). University of Edinburgh. A... Discourse Processes. & Purdy. Link. (2006). Reactions to irony in discourse: Evidence for the least disruption principle. (1987). J. & Austin. The poetics of mind: Figurative thought. K. (2005). J. & Oberlander. Cambridge. As such. M. 48. H. in the present work we examined the use of these forms but do not refer to them collectively as forms of verbal irony. Bryant. J. Gill. Irony in talk among friends. Hancock... E. A. However. Kaplan. Dews. R. Salting a wound or sugaring a pill: The pragmatic functions of ironic criticisms. 40.g.. In particular.. (2004). Gibbs.. and sarcasm. T. A. Each of the five forms of nonliteral language examined in the present study can be linked to ironic intent. 227-248.. L.. 179-199. Kehat. (2004). O. Attardo. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. K. S. 28. Irony in conversation. some scholars group these forms as types of verbal irony (e. A. D. 18. R. The perception of e-mail personality at zero-acquaintance. Discourse Processes. S. Forms such as hyperbole.. 71-85. (1999). Gill. French.” 2. C. language. Language in Society. Eisterhold. (2008. Contrast of kind versus contrast of magnitude: The pragmatic accomplishments of irony and hyperbole. there is some disagreement about this nomenclature. That is. Oberlander. S.. U. 23. J. 2000). & Boxer. & Caucci. Discourse Processes. 5-27.. G. & Sabah.sagepub. W. Because Kreuz et al. J. (2008). J. 497-507. Dress. Y. and rhetorical question need not always convey ironic intent. (2006).. their category called “irony” referred to instances within the subcategories of Socratic irony.. New York: Cambridge University Press. / Nonliteral Language in E-Mail   279 Notes 1. (1997). Brown. Why not say it directly? The social functions of irony.

Walther. New York: ACM Press. Roberts.. Norwood. CA: Sage. 35. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2007. 52-90. Oberlander. R. Mahwah. B. 12. 5. Pexman is a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include social and cognitive aspects of language processing. Speakers’ overestimates of their effectiveness. & Kreuz. 613-634. 19. Kreuz. Two cues for verbal irony: Hyperbole and the ironic tone of voice. Kruger. (1994). S. Northwestern University.. Interpreting figurative statements: Speaker occupation can change metaphor to irony. 2013 . B. Does irony go better with friends? Metaphor and Symbol.. (1994). Metaphor and Symbolic Activity. 529-563).. & Parks. J. Expressing emotion in text. 239-270. He was previously Faber Postdoctoral Fellow at LEAD-CNRS. & Henly.. 19. & Ng. E. The functions of sarcastic irony in speech. The use of verbal irony: Cues and constraints. Kreuz. J. A. In particular. 10. L. 21-31.. Cognitive Psychology. L. In M. 42.. Knapp & J. Handbook of interpersonal communication (3rd ed. Williams. G. S. Gill is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Center for Technology and Social Behavior. Her interests include the development of the appreciation of ironic language across middle childhood and adults’ use of ironic language in computer-mediated contexts.. (2007). & Christie. 241-279. Landrigan. Kreuz.. His research examines social and psychological aspects of communication. & Roberts. E. University of Edinburgh. P. (2003).. Mio & A.. & Silver. 89. (2005). (1995). J..). Communication Research. Journal of Pragmatics. C. 35.. B. N. (2003). Z. Penny M. Katz (Eds. The impacts of emoticons on message interpretation in computermediated communication. A. Whalen is a PhD candidate in cognitive development in the Psychology Department at the University of Calgary.). (1996). M. (2002). Pexman. Discourse Processes. (1976). J. M. MacNealy (Eds. K.). 19. Social Science Computer Review.. Kreuz & M. B. 159-163. NJ: Ablex. 1387-1411. R. New York: HarperCollins. Downloaded from jls. Katz. (2001). B. in 2004. Using multivariate statistics.. J. J. & Fidell. & Zvaigzne. J. and received his PhD from the School of Informatics. & Pexman. Roberts. Juanita M. & Bertus. Epley. K. Language with character: A stratified corpus comparison of individual differences in e-mail communication. The social psychology of telecommunications. R. P. pp. 165-208. Walther. M. 23-38). Discourse Processes. A. & Pexman. The illusory transparency of intention: Linguistic perspective taking in text. Short. (1996). 929-932).. 26. pp. J. cues filtered in: Computer-mediated communication and relationships. Johnson. Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics (pp. Cues filtered out. J. 143-163. J. 207-212. N. Daly (Eds. Keysar. R. Metaphor: Implications and applications (pp. M.. University of Burgundy. In J. Psychological Science. Ivanko. Alastair J. A. T..280   Journal of Language and Social Psychology Hancock. M. (1997). Jorgensen. B. (1996). S. 19-41. New York: Wiley.... (2006). (2004). Kotthoff. Tabachnick. R. C. (1992). M. P. & D’Addario. Walther. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. T. P. J. Why do people use figurative language? Psychological Science. Responding to irony in different contexts: On cognition and conversation. R. France. Figurative language occurrence and co-occurrence in contemporary literature. Keysar. Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective. & Gill. M. Metaphor and Symbol. Context incongruity and irony processing. 26. H. L. J. 323-345. at Tel Aviv University on April 6. J. Thousand Oaks. 83-97). S. M. she is interested in the development of comprehension and production of verbal irony and cues and constraints for processing of ironic language. B. (1996). 13. (2002).sagepub. Journal of Pragmatics. 925-936. She received her PhD in psychology from the University of Western Ontario in 1998. especially in computermediated environments that minimize interpersonal cues. Parker. R. J. L. Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In R.

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