Peculiar Punctuation: The Interrobang

Ah, the exclamation point: the joy of English punctuation. No other punctuation mark has the power to affect the volume in which we read a sentence. The exclamation point conveys intensity that a simple period can’t achieve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby (among other excellent works), wasn’t a big fan of exclamation points.

“Cut out all those exclamation points,” he said. “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Scott sits, silently judging you and your “!”

Now more than ever, the exclamation point is forcibly paired up with its good friend, the question mark. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over Facebook and in emails from your relatives:

“Are you kidding me?!”

“WHAT?!”

“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer?!”

Sometimes, people get carried away:

“OMG, THAT’S SOOOO AWESOME!!!!!!!! Can I come too?!?!?!?!”

Whew. Okay, let’s take a step back. Believe it or not, it isn’t grammatically correct to use more than one form of punctuation to end a sentence. You have three choices: a full stop (period), a question mark, and an exclamation point:

What are we supposed to do now. [incorrect]
What are we supposed to do now? [correct]
What are we supposed to do now! [incorrect]

What if you had a fourth option? Some believe the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point should be acceptable and accessible:

What are we supposed to do now‽ [correct or incorrect?]

My college Creative Writing Professor called the pairing of a question mark and exclamation point “atrocious.” He said you either need one or the other, but not both. A good writer can convey panic and surprise simultaneously without tacking on an extra punctuation mark.

Let’s allow Fitzgerald to convey his point. In his novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922), Richard Caramel meets a woman named Muriel Kane, and he eloquently describes her:

Her fingernails were too long and ornate, polished to a pink and unnatural fever. Her clothes were too tight, too stylish, too vivid, her eyes too roguish, her smile too coy. She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot.

I love the language Fitzgerald uses to describe Muriel, and this is a common style for him. He never would have said, “She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot!” That would’ve detracted from the subtlety of his words. In the same book, Fitzgerald demonstrates why pairing a question mark and exclamation point is ineffective through a scene between the two main characters, Anthony and Gloria:

They rejoiced happily, gay again with reborn irresponsibility. Then he told her of his opportunity to go abroad, and that he was almost ashamed to reject it.

“What do you think? Just tell me frankly.”

“Why, Anthony!” Her eyes were startled. “Do you want to go? Without me?”

His face fell—yet he knew, with his wife’s question, that is was too late. Her arms, sweet and strangling, were around him…

Fitzgerald knew better than to punctuate Gloria’s cries like this: “Do you want to go?! Without me?!” The reader knows her voice is raised in concern and she is panicked; we don’t need the exclamation point to understand that.

However, many writers don’t agree with Fitzgerald and have developed a loving relationship with both the question mark and the exclamation point.

In 1962, an advertising agent named Martin K. Speckter conceptualized a new punctuation mark: the interrobang, a fusion of a question mark (or interrogative mark) and an exclamation point (known in the printing world as a “bang“). He believed his ads would look more polished if he could use a single mark to convey the meaning of two. He introduced the concept in an article in TYPEtalks Magazine, and it caught on well enough to be included in several typewriter models and dictionaries. However, by the end of the decade, the fad fizzled out.

Nowadays, you won’t find the interrobang on any keyboard. However, it’s starting to gain new momentum in an age when the question mark and exclamation point are paired up more often than ever. Now, let’s work on those sentences from before:

“Are you kidding me‽”

“WHAT‽”

“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer‽”

Nevertheless, the interrobang is slightly impractical as it is. It takes a complicated keyboard shortcut to type (ALT+8253) and, unless you learn the mark at the same time you learn to write, it’s difficult to incorporate into a well-established handwriting set. For me, my question marks are too curvy to accommodate a straight exclamation point, making writing an interrobang awkward and uncomfortable.

While the mark remains a clever idea, it still isn’t considered standard punctuation and won’t be accepted in an academic environment. In casual conversation, though, feel free to impress your friends with your knowledge of this quirky mark.