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.


Stan said...

Some exclamatory punctuation strings include numbers, typically 1 or multiples thereof — as though to indicate excessive excitement, or in self-conscious, gently mocking reference to leetspeak. These numbers are sometimes spelled out, jocularly, as in: OMG!!?!11!!ELEVENTY!!1!

Sara said...

I actually have an interrobang necklace, made out of an old typewriter key. I always had a fondness for the combination, and the necklace made me look it up. Mr. Martin K. Speckter invented the combined symbol (as a single mark, rather than ?!) in 1962 and it was included on some typewriter makes in the 1960s. From his NY Times obituary:

"The mark is said to be the typographical equivalent of a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders. It applied solely to the rhetorical, Mr. Speckter said, when a writer wished to convey incredulity."

Marc Leavitt said...

Robert Ludlum, the now-deceased writer of popular novels of international intrigue and vast conspiracy theories, was a master of the italic sentence; so much so, that it became an expected part of his literary voice.
I don't hold with a Golden Mean for punctuation. It's changed according to fashion over the centuries. However, an excessive use of certain punctuation marks can be downright annoying. When they interfere with the flow of the narrative, when you slow down to say to yourself, "Oh, NO, not another exclamation point with a question mark?!- then I think it's time to say, "Hold! Enough!"


Anonymous said...

My own use has been coloured by chess notation:

sarah said...

I'm a big fan of the ?! combination, however they ring a different meaning to me. I usually use it either to ask an obvious question, with the intent of expressing bring surprised but wanting some more info, like on facebook, as a reply to someone's status: "You left your job?!" and so on. In other cases the "!" acts almost like a silent" WTF?" rather than simple emphasis on the question as in "How could you do such a thing?!"

Tigger said...

We need to be specific about what genre of writing we are discussing; Any prose, be it a novel or an article is by it's very nature more formal. To discuss e-mail or text messaging in comparison is simply not possible. you are trying to compare the written word with, what is essentially, dialogue. In a verbal discussion with another person, my inflection and expression come across. On paper they cannot. Hence "??!!**?!" (!)

Unknown said...

I have so far edited two fiction books by different authors where we have used the actual interbang punctuation mark ( ‽ ). It doesn't show well here - the best way to view it is in the Arial Unicode MS font at size 10 (this font and size is what we used in the books even though that wasn't the font of the rest of the manuscript which was in size 12). We decided to use this interbang mark because they originally had used the "?!".

Lea Ellen {night owl in IL}

Morriss Partee said...

Having been a typographer/graphic designer for 10 years, I completely agree that putting a long sentence into italics is functionally different that using an interrobang or exclamation point. It conveys a very different feeling to the reader.

However, I do want to point out that if a writer/editor/publisher chose to go that route, it does NOT preclude the possibility of emphasizing any particular word within the sentence: common typographic procedure calls for the emphasized word to simply revert back to the roman form. Here is what your sample sentence would look like:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?!

DC said...

Yes of course - and other ways too, such as bold italic. My point was simply in response to the original correspondent, which was solely about using italics to show emphasis.

Polish translator - Warsaw said...

Once, I received a ppt file including dozens of emoticons as comments to some presentation statements. It was easy to translate, but for God's sake, we have right words to explain our feelings!

Tim from Radio Clash said...

I always liked Terry Pratchett's take on multiple exclamation marks:

I do think too many (more than say 2 or 3) is pretty deranged, but mostly people are using them in ironic fashion!!!!11111 Like!!!!1111 This!!!!111

(the 1 is the fact you're so quickly writing it that you don't press the shift in time...from older computer geeks seen the same^^^^similar use of the up key, I'm assuming this was some terminal issue with the ability not to delete the word?