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Ask Daphne! I can use WHAT?!

interrobang_fcmA question from Kay that enables me to outsource my Ask Daphne column to an expert. In fact, that might be a good theme for the week! You ask me a question, and I’ll find the best person to answer it and post it here. Email questions you want answered by editors, or any of my clients, or someone else you think I might know to daphne.unfeasible@gmail.com. I’ll spend the rest of the week seeking expert answers and sharing them with you. (And even when it’s stuff I know the answer to, I’ll get a second opinion!) Shall we begin?

Is it ever appropriate to have double punctuation? I ask because I’ve been seeing a lot of this (?!) in some writing lately. I’ve never seen it in an actual book—at least not that I can remember, but when I correct it in works that I’m critiquing I’ve had authors tell me that it’s correct. And just recently I had a beta add a (?!) to one of my sentences. Is this correct? Maybe I’m old school, but this just seems wrong. Can you shed some light?

I knew the perfect expert for this question, so I turned toMartha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic], and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Martha replies:

What your reader is talking about is the “interrobang,” a combination question mark and exclamation point meant to show disbelief. It’s not widely accepted, though Microsoft ClearType font collection includes it. So theoretically, it could become mainstream. Certainly people pushing punctuation necklaces want it to be

The interrobang isn’t the only bit of stunt punctuation out there, either. It’s cousin to the zing or the snark, a mark meant to show irony. The people pushing the snark/zing haven’t agreed on a single look, though, unlike Team Interrobang.

The snark looks like either: a backwards question mark, a pooping inchworm, Harry Potter’s scar with a mole under it, or an exclamation point hiding inside parentheses. C’mon, Team Snark! Get it together! In all seriousness, though, the snark is actually a really old idea–the french poet Alcanter de Brahm pitched it in the late 1800s. Another French writer, Herve Bazin, took up the cause in the 1960s. He specialized in teen angst and familial drama, so you can see how such a thing would be useful. Oh, mom. I really like your sweater (!).

Punctuation isn’t really meant to convey emotion. It gives us breathing points, it separates ideas, it makes sentences clearer. These two marks, as well as that other bastardization of punctuation known as the emoticon, are cheats. The really good writers convey emotion with words. I know. So old-school. That said, stunt punctuation could work in certain cases–let’s say it’s one of your characters’ tics. Otherwise, it’s going to be annoying and will look amateurish to savvy readers.

It can be hard arguing punctuation and other points of language, especially with people who are so certain about a fringe punctuation mark. I feel your pain. You might invest in a good usage guide so you can answer these questions for yourself when they crop up, and then try to glean the spirit of the critique–it’s possible your reader wasn’t totally getting the emotion your words were conveying, which is helpful feedback, even if it’s dressed in the punctuation equivalent of a pimp jacket.

So Kay, I think you can safely stick by your guns and leave the interrobangs to dialogue only, or out altogether. The best writers don’t cheat.

Hey readers — can you think of any uses of the interrobang in any books you’ve read? Cite sources and quotes in the comments!

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