Thursday 17 May 2012
On interrobanging on
A correspondent writes to ask if I would settle an argument about the use of an exclamation mark after a question mark in order to add emphasis to a question, as in 'What?!' The writer finds it unacceptable, and feels that if one wishes to add emphasis to a question, one should write it in italics. The other party has no problem with it. Nor do I - though I have to say straight away that it's not possible ever to 'settle' arguments about punctuation, as attitudes are very much bound up with personal taste and trends in fashion. There's been antagonism towards the use of the exclamation mark for a long time, and especially since the 19th century, when writers used it a great deal. Fowler, for example, comments: 'Excessive use of exclamation marks is ‥. one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.' So the use of it along with the question mark has attracted extra ire from stylists, and 20th century house styles generally recommended the removal of exclamation marks unless absolutely necessary. Copy editors would never allow a multiple mark (!!, !!!), except in such genres as novels and poetry where the author insisted - and even then, they would do their best to persuade the author to remove them. I've had many of my exclamation marks removed, over the years, and have had to shout vociferously in order to get them back. But the attitude has influenced me, and I always look carefully at a piece of formal writing before deciding to use one, knowing that any use still antagonizes some readers. But this prescriptive trend hasn't stopped their use, and in settings where copy editors are absent, we see multiple forms frequently, especially in blogs and other online genres where emotional expression is not being artificially constrained. Indeed, on the Internet there has been a remarkable proliferation of uses, including emails in which exclamation and question marks are combined in long sequences (?!?!?!) and used idiosyncratically along with other forms (such as ?!**!?, received in an email recently, which I interpreted as an emphatic questioning explosion of some sort). There has even been an institutionalization in print of the basic combination, in the form of the interrobang. The style is informal, of course, so the argument my correspondent reports really resolves into a stylistic question of the level of language the two parties have in mind. It isn't just the Internet, however. The combined form makes available a further semantic distinction which is of general availability: Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing? - a genuine question Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - an emphatic comment Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?! - a genuine question with added emphasis - the question function is primary in the speaker's mind There is also a fourth possibility (much less often encountered): Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing!? - an emphatic comment with a questioning tone. The question is an afterthought, a bit like: Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - huh? I have no problem making this contrast in my own writing, but I've no idea how far the distinction is shared by others. I can't imagine that the use of italics would work. Maybe it would, for single-word utterances. But it would seem like overkill to italicize a long sentential question. Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing? And it would disallow the use of italics in that question if the author wanted to highlight a single word, as in: Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?! So my view is that there's nothing wrong at all with a combined form, in informal contexts where the emotion is clearly warranted. But I'd be interested to see other examples of the usage, as readers of this blog encounter them.