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.
These indicators are especially helpful for neurodivergent people, such as those with autism or dyslexia, who may struggle to understand the tone of written content. These tone tags are most commonly used on social media where miscommunication and misinterpretation are high. Tone indicators are never used as a joke; they are only used to convey the real intent and tone of the message author.
While tone indicators have been around for centuries, they gained popularity in 2020 on platforms such as TikTok, Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr. Supporters of tone indicators say they want to be inclusive and help others have a better experience online. A lot of Gen Z social media users have adopted them, according to The New York Times.
To use a tone indicator, users would insert a forward slash "/" followed by the abbreviation at the end of a sentence.
Below we share a list of common tone indicators and examples, discuss the history of tone indicators, and explain best practices for using them.
Tone indicator list
/a — affectionate
I’m thinking of you. /a
/c — copypasta (A chunk of text that gets repeatedly copied and pasted over and over in internet chats.)
Imagine going to an online chat and spamming it with brainless text for no reason. /c
/cb — clickbait
You’ll never believe what’s inside this $20M home! /cb
/f — fake
Look at this real-life unicorn. /f
/gen or /g — genuine
You’re such a great person. /gen
/genq — genuine question
Why should you use tone indicators? /genq
/hj — half joking
I mean, I’m usually right. /hj
/hyp — hyperbole
I have 10,000 things to do today. /hyp
/ij — inside joke
There’s just something about those beach fries. /ij
/j — joking
I’m basically the queen of Tumblr 👑 /j
/l or /ly — lyrics
Vintage tee, brand new phone. High heels on cobblestones. /ly
/lh — light-hearted
I think you misspelled mosey. /lh
/li — literal
The rat we saw was the size of a small dog. /li
/lu — little upset
Our top client won’t be renewing. /lu
/m — metaphorical
His fingers were icicles after shoveling for so long! /m
/nav — not a vent
Work has been so busy. /nav
/nbh — nobody here (none of your followers)
I’m really feeling down because of someone. /nbh
/neg or /ng — negative connotation
Oh my gosh. I’m going to cry. /neg
/neu — neutral connotation
The dog needs to go outside. /neu
/nf — not forced
Do you want to hang out today? /nf
/nm — not mad
Did you leave the iron on this morning? /nm
/npa — not passive aggressive
Busy! I’ll call you later. /npa
/nsb — not subtweeting
I hate when people don’t say things to your face. /nsb
/nsrs — non-serious
I just bruised my leg, but I’m okay. /nsrs
/nsx or /nx — non-sexual intent
You look so good. /nx
/p — platonic
I’d love to give you a hug. /p
/pa — passive aggressive
That didn’t stop you? /pa
/pos or /pc — positive connotation
Oh my gosh! I’m going to cry. /pos
/q — quote
“Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going.” /q
/r — romantic
I can’t wait to do life with you. /r
/ref — reference
It’s exactly like the gold or blue dress debacle. /ref
/rh or /rt — rhetorical
I still can’t figure out the issue. How can I be so stupid? /rh
/s — sarcastic
This is just what I needed on a Monday. /s
/srs — serious
I really like working with you. /srs
/sx or /x — sexual intent
You look so good. /x
/t — teasing
Oh really? Guess we have to be best friends now. /t
/th — threat
I will block you if you don’t stop. /th
Below, we share a graphic of a tone indicator list you can save for easy reference.
Best practices and tips for using tone indicators
There are several best practices to keep in mind before using tone indicators.
1. Never use tone indicators as a joke
Using tone indicators as a joke defeats their purpose. It would make them not useful for the people who need them most, and remove the ability to have a safe space for every person online.
For example, you’d never want to use the “/srs” tone indicator for something that is a joke.
2. Don’t overuse tone indicators
Use just one or two tone indicators at a maximum. Using more than this makes the tone confusing and can be condescending.
For example, take the following phrase:
✅ Please use tone indicators, they really help me! /pos /gen
❌ Please use tone indicators, they really help me! /pos /nm /gen /srs /nf
In the first sentence, the tone of the message is clear. In the second sentence, the tone gets confusing with so many of the indicators.
3. Respect people’s preferences
If you’re not sure if someone prefers to communicate with tone indicators or not, just ask! It is easy to start using them once you know this preference.
Some people may also have their preferences stated explicitly somewhere, like their bio on a social media platform.
4. Use them across platforms
Tone indicators can be used anywhere in text-based conversations. This includes texting, social media posts, social comment sections, emails, and more. You can use them on any of these platforms to clarify your tone, especially when your tone may be ambiguous.
It is also important to note that tone indicators can be used in business communication as well as casual non-work communication.
Tone indicator history
The first proposed tone indicator was proposed by Henry Denham in 1580. It was proposed as a way to help people better understand ironic phrases in print media. The first proposed tone indicator was the percontation point, which is a backward question mark. Denham wanted the symbol to denote a rhetorical question. But, usage of the symbol died out in the 1700s.
The other proposed tone indicator was created in 1668 by John Wilkins. He proposed an irony mark, which is an inverted exclamation point meant to denote an ironic statement. However, neither of these punctuation marks gained widespread usage.
Fast forward to 1982, when the emoticon became the new symbol to denote a joke or serious statement.
The modern use of tone indicators stems from “/s” which has long been used to denote sarcasm. It is a simplification of /sarcasm.
Read more about the history on Wikipedia.
The bottom line
The tone of text-based conversations can be tricky to grasp online or via text. However, making sure your audience understands your tone is an important part of effectively communicating. To ensure your thought, sentence, or message doesn’t get lost in translation, consider using a tone indicator.