Emoticons are a modern form of English punctuation.
Essentially they are a pictorial representation of a human face which are used to give nuance to a text.
For example, I could write:
See you on Thursday.
In itself, this seems fairly innocuous. However, if next Thursday we plan to attend the leaving party of an old friend I might add a “sad” face thus:
See you on Thursday. 🙁
Alternatively, if we plan to meet on Thursday for a romantic dinner I might add a “winking” face:
See you on Thursday. 😉
Use of Emoticons in TEFL
Although emoticons are very popular in emails and other online texts, they are still only used very rarely in anything approaching a formal text. In TEFL you should advise your students that they should not be used in writing unless it is a personal message to a friend, and even then they shouldn’t be used in any formal setting such as an exam.
The term, emoticon, is a mix of emotion and icon.
Originally they were formed using usual type keys, e.g. a colon + hyphen + right parenthesis = a smiley face (albeit on its side):
These days, emoticons are often made with small images (as in the picture on this page).
Although emoticons can be traced back in one form or another to the 19th century they only really took off in the digital era. Emoticons were first suggested in a digital message by Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 19 September 1982.
Punctuation – an overview of punctuation in English