AI conception of a tone machine with knobs, dials, and a needle sweeping across a red, yellow, green, indicator.

Tone Indicators

Tone indicators are shorthand for words used to convey tone, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “a quality in the voice that expresses the speaker’s feelings or thoughts”

The tone of someone’s voice can be joking, or serious; it can be teasing, or threatening. It can be negative, positive, or neutral. It can be sexually suggestive, or entirely friendly. Tone can do so much to change the meaning and implications of a sentence.

Some examples of tone indicators are “/j”“/s”“/srs”“/p”“/r”“/ly”“neg”“pos”“/gen” and “/c”. Though there are many others, these are the ones that are most commonly used and needed for clarity of communication.

The intended use of tone indicators is in text, and they are prevalent on social media where miscommunication is rife, and posts and messages are often misinterpreted.

In fact, in a study, UCLA professor of psychology Albert Mehrabian found that 93% of liking is from non-verbal cues. 38% is due to tone of voice, while an additional 55% is attributed to body language. These cues are often entirely absent in online spaces, such as social media platforms — like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Reddit.

Tone can be especially difficult to parse for neurodivergent people. This is not to say that neurotypical people never misunderstand tone through text, or even face-to-face, because they do — but that neurodivergent people may experience and interpret tone differently.

Tone indicators aren’t anything new. The tone indicator “/s” has a well-precedented use, spanning years on Reddit. As early on as the 1580s, there have been tone indicators; Henry Dunham, an English printer, created a backwards question mark, “⸮”, which he dubbed the “percontation point*. It was meant to indicate rhetorical questions. Today, we would use “/rh” or “/rt”.

a guide to tone indicators

A tone indicator is a symbol or shorthand word used to convey the tone of any text-based message. This includes SMS messages, social media posts, emails, and more.

Tone is a key component of verbal and nonverbal communication. Without understanding tone, it is hard to truly grasp the meaning of someone’s words. In longer-form written pieces, tone can be conveyed with syntax strategies. And, with verbal communication, tone can be conveyed with pitches, body language, or facial expressions. 

However, it is much harder to understand in casual text conversations. This is where tone indicators, also called tone tags, come into play.

Tone indicators: A master list, what they are, and how to use them

tone indicator or tone tag is a symbol attached to a sentence or message sent in a textual form, such as over the internet, to explicitly state the intonation or intent of the message, especially when it may be otherwise ambiguous.

Tone indicator – Wikipedia