The grammar of emoji? Constraints on communicative pictorial sequencing

Neil Cohn*, Jan Engelen, Joost Schilperoord

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Emoji have become a prominent part of interactive digital communication. Here, we ask the questions: does a grammatical system govern the way people use emoji; and how do emoji interact with the grammar of written text? We conducted two experiments that asked participants to have a digital conversation with each other using only emoji (Experiment 1) or to substitute at least one emoji for a word in the sentences (Experiment 2). First, we found that the emoji-only utterances of participants remained at simplistic levels of patterning, primarily appearing as one-unit utterances (as formulaic expressions or responsive emotions) or as linear sequencing (for example, repeating the same emoji or providing an unordered list of semantically related emoji). Emoji playing grammatical roles (i.e., 'parts-of-speech') were minimal, and showed little consistency in 'word order'. Second, emoji were substituted more for nouns and adjectives than verbs, while also typically conveying nonredundant information to the sentences. These findings suggest that, while emoji may follow tendencies in their interactions with grammatical structure in multimodal text-emoji productions, they lack grammatical structure on their own.

Original languageEnglish
Article number33
Number of pages18
JournalCognitive research: principles and implications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2019


  • Visual language
  • Emoji
  • Pictorial communication
  • Multimodality
  • Gesture
  • Grammar


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