March 2, 2021

The Interrobang–that’s for me!

By John Guy LaPlante

And maybe for you!

The interro….. what?

The interrobang! Yes, you read right. What’s the interrobang? You see it at the left, but greatly enlarged. It’s a brand-new punctuation mark. You know, in addition to the period, comma, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, and so on.  Which all go back a long, long time. Well, the interrobang truly would be useful to me as an active writer / blogger.

What is so interesting about it to me is that I have been doing exactly what the interrobang does. How? By using two standard punctuation marks together. I repeat, together. You’ve probably never seen that, have you?

Here’s an example. In my most recent blog about a Seed Library, I wrote “Yes, from our library here, you  can check out seeds, and free, mind you–vegetable seeds,  fruit seeds, berry seeds, seeds of other kinds, would you believe?!”

Notice how I used a question mark and an exclamation mark together? Deliberately. Because I wasn’t only asking a question but telling you I was astonished. And I believe it worked. I’m sure you got it.

I didn’t pick up this trick of two punctuation marks slapped together from somebody else.  The idea came to me because I felt that together they did the job I believed was needed. I’ve never seen anyone else do it.

How did I hear about the interrobang? I happened to pick up a recent issue of the Reader’s Digest–September, this year. At the public library, by the way. The magazine kicked off with a section called “Genius Issue–Words of the Mind.” The issue had a lode of articles about words and writing. Delightful! On Page 82 I discovered the interrobang punctuation mark that I showed you up top. There was one paragraph about it. It said what I’ve just told you.

Right away I looked up interrobang on Wikipedia. It said interrobang is “a non-standard punctuation mark indicating a question in an exclamation manner, as in ‘What are you doing?’!” It said it was invented by advertising man Martin K. Speckter back in 1962. Yes, in 1962. What?!

See, I just used this powerful duo of mine again! Because I’m curious about the date, 1962, which is 55 years ago…yet I am just hearing about it now!  And I’ll bet so are you! Again, a linked  question and exclamation.

Curious me, I looked up interrobang on Merriam-Webster, our leading dictionary publisher. It defined it the same way.

I read that Mr. Speckter as an advertising pro saw a need for it in many ads by the very nature of advertising. Well, I saw a need for my duo in the explanatory writing that is my forte. I am so, so happy now to have the interrobang in my writer’s toolbox, along with all the conventional punctuation marks. The interrobang will come in handy.

You know, at one time punctuation marks did not exist. When we speak, of course, they are unnecessary. The tone of our voice says it all, well, along with the expression on our face. Periods and commas and question marks came into use one by one because thoughtful writers saw their necessity.

All that said, I’ve run into a problem. When I write with pad and pen, it’s easy for me to put in a real interrobang. I just write an exclamation mark right over my question mark. But I do 99 percent of my writing on a keyboard. The interrobang ain’t on the keyboard!

So, I’ll just have to keep getting along with my own little combo, my home-made interrobang. How about that?!

P.S. if you’re intrigued by writing and words, do look up that September issue of the Reader’s Digest. Its piece on the interrobang includes 11 other punctuation marks that are hardly known. Yes, 11!

Another I loved was “Confessions by a Word Nerd (Kay Stamper): Inside the secret, silent work lives of dictionary writers.” Plus a delightful humor piece, “Sleuthing for Cliches: A tongue-in-cheek guide to government-speak run amok.”

And other juicy pieces on this word / writing theme, along with other good stuff. Plus two word delights that have been included in the magazine months after month since its dawn, it seems to me.  The “Word Power” game and “Quotable Quotes” from people in the news.

By the way, I just Googled “Reader’s Digest Confessions of a Word Nerd.” And I found it. I also scored with “Reader’s Digest Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should be Doing.” Isn’t that something?!

All this said, I do  feel a twinge of guilt about showing you how to enjoy these articles online for free. I should be pushing you to buy the Reader’s Digest to enjoy these delights. It would be pocket money well spent. But the paper September issue is probably unavailable (unless you find it at your public library). And enjoying these pieces through Google may get you to subscribe! Gosh, aren’t I good at rationalizing?!

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The disappearing !  Aren’t you worried?

By John Guy LaPlante

Don’t recognize it?  It’s ! –our exclamation mark. If you’re not worried, I am! It seems as dead as the dodo.

My memory is pretty good. I believe nobody has ever sent me an email and used an exclamation mark in it.  They might be saying, “Happy Birthday, John,” or “Sorry about your terrible fall.” No exclamation mark. Those are exclamations. So an ! is essential!

Haven’t you experienced the same thing? I’ll bet you have.

The big question is, why is our ! so imperiled?

Back in grammar school, excuse me, the elementary school so-called now, we learned we have 12 punctuation marks.  Well, I did. They are the period (.), comma (,) question mark (?), exclamation mark (!), colon (:), semi-colon (;), apostrophe (‘), quotation mark (“), the hyphen (-), the dash (–) , parentheses (which you’ve seen me use 10 times here), and brackets [ ].

In our newspapers and magazines, you never see an exclamation any more. It’s absolutely taboo. A headline will say, “Mother Kills Her Six Children.”  No exclamation mark! That’s absurd! One exception—our awful supermarket tabloids! They sock us with them.

And of the 12, the exclamation mark is one of the four biggies.

Online I just found a perfect explanation showing why they’re important and how they’re used. It’s dramatic! It’s so good that I’m reproducing it here right now. Hope I’m not infringing on a copyright!

First, its clever but unfortunately unknown author shows us several lines of English. With zero punctuation marks.  And asks us if we make sense out of it.  Here’s it is — I’m putting it in italic for clarity.

perhaps you dont always need to use commas periods colons etc to make sentences clear when i am in a hurry tired cold lazy or angry i sometimes leave out punctuation marks grammar is stupid i can write without it and dont need it my uncle Harry once said he was not very clever and i never understood a word he wrote to me i think ill learn some punctuation not too much enough to write to Uncle Harry he needs some help

Do you make sense out of it? Of course not. Well, only after a struggle! Now the author puts in the punctuation, and does so properly. Now take a look:

Perhaps you don’t always need to use commas, periods, colons etc. to make sentences clear. When I am in a hurry, tired, cold, lazy, or angry I sometimes leave out punctuation marks. “Grammar is stupid! I can write without it and don’t need it,” my uncle Harry once said. He was not very clever, and I never understood a word he wrote to me. I think I’ll learn some punctuation – not too much, enough to write to Uncle Harry. He needs some help!

Notice the incredible improvement? Those little marks are essential! I called this a perfect example. Not so. Only half of the available marks are used. It should have included every one of them. And a couple are used wrong, well, in my opinion.

Case closed!

Whoever first used those marks did so to make anything read on paper sound as close as possible to how they would sound if spoken.

When anyone speaks, they utter something and stop. That’s why on paper they’d put in a period. When they ask us anything, by their tone of voice we instinctively know it’s a question.  So on paper they’d include a question mark. If they yell something good or bad, or curse, or warn us about something, we know they’re exclamations. And on paper they’d include the marks invented to show that.

That’s for the main four punctuation marks. To make written messages crystal clear, the other eight were introduced, one by one. They have subsidiary roles, albeit consequential.

I for one would love to read the history of our punctuation marks. The inventor of each one. What year. And so on. Fascinating. I’m not sure a history exists. But hey,  one does exist! I went looking and found David Crystal’s wonderful  Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. I quote him here about the exclamation mark. This is just one highlight.

Here’s a short selection of contexts where the [exclamation] mark would be routinely used these days, says he.

interjections – Oh!
expletives – Damn!
greetings – Happy Xmas!
calls – Johnny!
commands – Stop!
expressions of surprise – What a mess!
emphatic statements – I want to see you now!
attention-getters – Listen carefully!
loud speech in dialogue – I’m in the garden!
ironic comments – He paid, for a change! or . . . for a change (!)
strong mental attitudes – ‘Hardly!’ he thought

A complete list of situations would be impossibly long, as it would need to identify all the emotions that could motivate the use of the mark.”

Thank you, Mr. Crystal!

Well, I  said “Case closed!” Not quite.

What is still open is why, yes, why, the exclamation mark seems to have gone out of fashion. It seems so contrary to the intent of whoever’s the writer. Maybe the writer is a boring, cold-blooded, impassionate person.  Though I’ll bet that’s not so. I think it’s the fear of appearing emotional, or not wanting to run against the tide. Or plain lack of appreciation, meaning ignorance.

In our good newspapers, there’s a different reason. I believe they do so to maintain the “objectivity” that is the hallowed and important prime principle that backs up all their reporting. Which is totally lacking in many other countries where the press is just an arm of the ruling government. China. Russia. And so on.

I mentioned in their reporting.  But it’s different on their editorial page. That’s where they’re telling us their official, on-the-record opinion. True also of their columnists and op-ed writers and letter writers. It’s wrong here for them not to show their strong feelings by abstaining from the exclamation mark! They’re delinquent! That ! would add the needed emphasis!

I use exclamation marks a lot, and I’m sure you’ve noticed.  Though far more than usual in this piece just to dramatize my message. But hey, I’ve even been known to use two, yes, two !! together. Such as, “About this matter, I am damned, in fact, gxd-dammed upset!!”  See?

I can even imagine a situation when I might use three. Such as four years from now, “Trump gets re-elected!!!” See? And that wouldn’t be to show my amazement. No, no!  To show my utter shock!!! God forbid that does happen in 2020!

I’ve even been known to use two different punctuation marks together. Such as, “What did you think of that terrific editorial?!”  See? I’m sure you can tell I intend it as a combination question and exclamation.

Enough said!

But do you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m too passionate and should calm down? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m fighting a losing battle? Please let me know!

If you agree with me, well, use the  ! more. Please, please!!

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