Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Recently, I’ve been listening to GrammarGirl’s “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing”. I’ve generally found the episodes to be very interesting, and even though I thought I knew some of the subjects well, I’ve definitely learned something each time. I’d highly recommend giving it a listen.

However, in one of her recent episodes which discussed punctuating questions, she mentioned something that really mystified me: The Interrobang. I’ll quote her explanation below:

GrammarGirl said: And finally, when you’re asking a question in surprise such as What? it isn’t appropriate to use multiple question marks or a question mark with an exclamation point. You’re supposed to pick the terminal punctuation mark that is most appropriate and use just one (1). Is your statement more of a question or more of an outburst?

I’ve always found that solution unsatisfactory, so I was thrilled to learn that there’s an obscure punctuation mark that was designed exclusively for asking questions in a surprised manner. It’s called an interrobang, and it looks like an exclamation point superimposed on a question mark.

You shouldn’t use the interrobang in formal writing, but I think it would be great if people started using it on blogs and in other informal communications. If you have the Wingdings 2 font in your word processing program, you can insert an interrobang as a special character, and there are unicode values that you can use to add the interrobang to your web site. I’ve put those in the transcript of this episode.

Although it’s a rather cool looking symbol, I think it’s a rather silly idea, and demonstrates one of the most frustrating aspects of prescriptive grammar.

So, the interrobang exists for a very distinct reason: Sometimes, you want to express that you’re surprised as you ask a given question, but you can’t use two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence.

My first thought when I read that was “How have I never heard of that rule?!”

…wait. Something’s wrong. I just used two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. And… everything’s OK. The reader understood me, understood that the question carried a note of surprise, and most importantly, the English language didn’t collapse in on itself or explode in a blaze of punctuational pyrotechnics. That must mean that the inability to end a sentence with two punctuation marks isn’t a natural, grammatical rule (like “I have walked” versus “I have walk”), but instead, is an arbitrary, stylistic rule.

So, basically, the Interrobang was created because an arbitrary, stylistic rule has forbidden what most people normally do to indicate a surprised question, the “?!” cluster. They’ve broken the language by disallowing the existing punctuation system, then created this new mark to bandage the wound they created. Am I the only person who sees this whole process as more than a little ridiculous?

Keep in mind, though, I’m not against all attempts at expanding our system of punctuation. I think that the Irony Mark might come in handy from time to time, and a sarcasm mark would be very useful for online communications.

However, the Interrobang strikes me as a cute, interesting, but ultimately unnecessary bit of novel punctuation. The interrobang is only necessary if we accept one particular bit of nitpicky stylistic dogma. When you couple its questionable reason for existence with the relative difficulty of finding and inserting the symbol compared to the simple “?!” cluster, it’s no wonder to me that it hasn’t caught on.

That’s not to say, however, that the interrobang is without it’s fans, who need to be represented as well. After forwarding the article to a friend of mine online, she responded with excitement to the idea:

Make sure you talk about the convenience of only one dot. I know you may be against it, but you must talk about both sides and be fair. A dot may not seem like a lot of time to someone, especially if you are particularly crafty with a pen. BUT think about if you are hyperbole happy. All the time you will save over the years. It’s really staggering.

So, although the interrobang has a future amongst hyperbole-happy minimalists and time-savers, the fact of the matter is that for the majority of people, the interrobang is never going to fly. You’re welcome to interrobang your writing to your heart’s content, but just don’t be surprised when your proofreading friend hands you back your essay with a big red circle around your interrobang, and a small note, scribbled in the margins, reading “What the heck is this?!”.

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