Ask Daphne! I can use WHAT?!

December 8th, 2009 • Kate

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 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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13 Responses to “Ask Daphne! I can use WHAT?!”

  1. Jamie Says:

    I can't. But–I do have big plans to use the word interrobang at least three times in normal conversation today.

    Sonic guy through the microphone: Would you like to try some jalapeno poppers or chili cheese fries with your diet cherry limeade?

    Me: That's a little interrobang, don't you think?

  2. Casey McCormick Says:

    I recently read a YA book that had at least one. I'll try to figure out which one it was and get back to you!

  3. Kristi Says:

    What?!? Are you saying I have to rewrite my whole ms?!? Just kidding. I don't recall ever seeing an interrobang in a book and I read a ton, although I'll be looking for them now. 🙂

  4. Karen Says:

    See, this is why I LOVE this site. Not only do we get awesome answers to questions but we get introduced to words like interrobang! I love it!

    I for one will be sticking to the good old fashion punctuation. Whenever I see ?! in a story, it pulls me out of the world because I'm always thinking…that's not right. Now, thanks to Kate and Martha Brockenbrough I know that it *can* be used, but personally, it still doesn't look right to me. So I'll keep my singular punctuation and then not worry about correcting it if I see it in other's work.

    I know a novel that I've seen it in, but it's home so I'll post again with an example.

  5. Frederic Says:

    The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.) recognizes the validity of the ?! combination (paragraph 5.136), though it advises infrequent usage.

    It's a useful tool and I've used it a few times.

  6. Jenny Says:

    The only place I've seen an interrobang that didn't make me crazy was in a text message, and that's probably where they should stay.

  7. Christina Says:

    This is interesting because I've seen more of this lately in people's emails. So maybe people are trying to transfer it into their own writing?

  8. Adam Heine Says:

    I can't remember seeing it in a published book, but I doubt I'd have noticed.

    I would recommend using it only in dialogue and only once per novel (give or take). More than that, and it's cheating.

    Related, I endorse Terry Pratchett's rule of exclamation marks: "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind."

  9. CrazyComposer Says:

    Your choice of expert to answer this question was, indeed, well chosen. There is no doubt that the many devices available to writers today (including the Internet and all of its various enticements) can tend to lead (how's that for a qualification) increased laziness in writers. Even the casual lack of attention that is paid to the simplest of things, such as grammar, is made painfully obvious on so many occasions that one must wonder if punctuation is really what some writers should be worried about. I cannot count the number of things that I've read that have, for some reason or other, seemed to have gone to print without having passed by the desk of an editor (or, having done so, the editor was asleep at the switch).

    Having gone through the process of publication I can say with certainty that my editor would have firmly rejected the use of the 'interrobang', regardless of its acceptance on the Chicago Manual of Style – it simply isn't elegant writing, nor does it conform to the 'house style' (Wiley).

    The common use of mixing punctuation in text messages and emails is another case where writing and writers become lazy (though the writing of extra characters to convey 'x' belies this); rather than writing out an expression of exasperation or a complete thought it seems easier to fall back onto the usage of combined characters, in the hopes that their use will be understood by the individual who received the message.

    Rather than making things simpler, dare I say 'lowering' the level of the language, should we – as writers – not be seeking to elevate it through its usage? While it may not be likely for this (or any future) generation to produce another Shakespeare or Chaucer, we produce the great writers of our own time, not of the past. Besides, if Shakespeare were writing today he would likely be ridiculed for his proclivity for inventing words, something that seems frowned upon in the world of writing today.

    Punctuation should serve the words we use: the words are not written in service of the punctuation, they are merely the vehicle through which, occasionally, punctuation marks appear as road signs to the way the words are to be read. Period; no interrobang needed.

  10. Tony Keats Says:

    Is punctuation really to give us breathing points? I've heard that's the use of a comma but I understood that it was about separating clauses ie a technical device or rule, not just there for our convenience.

    As for Interrobangs – look out for Justin Thyme by Panama Oxridge.

  11. Rissa Watkins Says:

    My first thought when I read this was, heck no- I have never seen an interrobang in a published book. In a weird timing fluke, that very night I was interrobanged (interrobung?) in a MaryJanice Davidson & Anthony Alongi book called The Silver Moon Elm…

    "I want you to forgive my son."

    Dammit! "Why?!"

  12. Kathy Says:

    If an interrobang is ?!

    What is !? called?

    And would there be a name for !?! and ?!? ? What about #*! or other "synonyms" for swear words?

    This could get ridiculous super fast.

  13. Callie Says:

    I found one!

    In Diane Duane's WIZARD'S HOLIDAY, a character says, "Who would dare?!"

    Not sure how many are out there in all, but now we know that there's at least one.