During a conversation

My friend wrote •shrugs•

Why shrugs not shrug?

She was the one who did it then why third person singular form?


It is becoming increasingly common during text messaging to write actions as if they are from a script, for example, words like laughs or shrugs describe an action that the other person is doing but you cannot see over a text message.

TV and movie scripts are often written this way:



The tense makes sense in a script because it is a prompt to say what happens. I guess this has just found its way into text-messaging as I have seen it done quite a few times.

It is also possible that your friend tried to send some kind of emoji that is named "shrugs" and you just saw a text representation of it.

  • 2
    I'm curious, do you have any sources that this is the origin of the practice, or is this a personal theory? – SamBC Apr 15 at 11:24
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    @SamBC [rolls eyes] – Astralbee Apr 15 at 11:29
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    As to the why, when you look at a chat/sms interface it shows speech bubbles and often includes the users' names for each response in the conversation, similar to a script/screenplay, except for alternating alignment. May I suggest an edit to the conversation to right align John and his response to illustrate this? @SamBC consider self-referentiality :-) – mcalex Apr 15 at 15:26
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    I would add that the practice of giving stage directions in the third person is very old. The word exit, for example, and its plural exeunt, is the third person present active indicative singular, meaning he (or she or it) goes out and they go out, respectively. – phoog Apr 15 at 21:31
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    As far as the chat/IM usage, it dates back to some of the earliest chat networks (I've seen 20 plus year old usenet and BBS messages that used it). It was made popular by IRC though, which actually has a shorthand command for formatting a comment to show up like stage directions for the user sending it in the chat log, as pointed out by SamBC's answer. – Austin Hemmelgarn Apr 15 at 22:25

Now, this is my best guess, because if you want to know why she did it, you need to ask her. I imagine the answer will be something along the lines of "that's how everyone does it", because it is common, and people don't always know the 'why' for something that's general practice.

However, I would imagine this has to do with the history of online chat. Back in the day when you had IRC, web chats, etc, the way you indicate that you were doing something was to use some prefix - "/me" on IRC, ":" on non-IRC based web or console chats, in my experience - and it would be rendered like so, the first line being what the user typed and the second line being what was produced in chat:

/me waves hello

USERNAME waves hello

Because of this, people got used to writing such actions in the third person, and that pattern has continued even though a lot of modern chat systems don't have such syntax for actions, including even SMS (which now has a chat-like interface on smartphones).

  • Which was also picked up by MMOs, where emotes like /wave would output "Username waves." This seems much more likely than TV scripts. – isanae Apr 15 at 16:53
  • @isanae: pretty much any chat with /-commands is derived from IRC, I would say. The other sort of chat that this went through, of course, was MUDs and MOOs and such. – SamBC Apr 15 at 16:55
  • Yep, third-person reactions in chat are much older than text messaging and speech bubbles, as the other answer suggests. It's unfortunate the OP has ticked an answer so quickly. – isanae Apr 15 at 16:59
  • @isanae It always seemed to me that the reason IRC and the like supported this feature is because it resembled stage directions in a script, so the other answer is arguably closer to the underlying cause. In my experience, people were also typing things like "waves hello" and "shrugs" even without using or knowing about the username substitution feature. – phoog Apr 15 at 21:34
  • @phoog: well, the username still appears by that. It essentially ends up be a description of what has happened, in the third person. The fact of these different interpretations is why I would love to see if anyone has actually tried to figure this out. – SamBC Apr 15 at 21:58

I often see this in text/internet convention. Often, the narrative phrases get enclosed by asterisks, as in

johnthecatlover42: when someone violates the treaty of versailles
*inhales* boi

It's like stage direction in theatre, or a sudden temporary shift into a third-person voice. The text, in this case, is your friend telling you that they are shrugging.

There's almost an implied subject in the person that sent the message.

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