As a copy editor, I’m sickeningly familiar with most types of punctuation. I can bore people with the innate details of the differences between en and em dashes or why you should never disregard the semicolon.
When it comes to fiction writing, the rules of punctuation become a little more malleable. You can intentionally write a run-on sentence to induce a sense of panic in your reader. You can decide not to use colons if you don’t like them. And choosing terminal punctuation—a period, exclamation point or question mark, for example—can completely change the tone of a sentence. So, in this reader-suggested category, I thought I’d share my thoughts about different types of punctuation.
The interrobang is a relatively new bit of punctuation, and its use is almost exclusive to fiction. In fact, some people look at me like I made the word or the punctuation up when I talk about it. I have an interrobang necklace, and more often than not people think it’s a stylized P.
But the interrobang is real, and it is wonderful. It’s often written as !? or ?!, although I like the combined form, ‽, because it implies the two marks have equal emphasis. But all versions convey a sense of being startled or shocked. That’s part of the purpose of punctuation, to help a reader decipher author intent or a character’s state of mind, and in that regard I think there are few pieces of punctuation that convey meaning better than the interrobang.
The exclamation point on its own often gets a bad rap, although I think that’s unfair (a topic for a future Pondering Punctuation post). To add to it, sometimes exclamations are also questions, yet the question mark or exclamation point alone do not convey the entire intended meaning. In comes the interrobang to clarify. Consider the difference when you read these sentences:
- It’s him?
- It’s him!
- It’s him‽
The first seems curious or even nervous, the second surprised or happy. The third is shocked, maybe unhappy or alarmed. The rest of the paragraph or events leading up to that phrase in a story would allow a reader to know precisely, but even out of any context the three types of punctuation have different potential meanings. So although the interrobang might at first seem silly, or childish, I contend that it serves an important purpose. However, like all special punctuation, it should be used with care.
Personally, I like that the interrobang is a little wacky and uncommon. It’s like that eccentric relative that you don’t see often but when they drop in they always have the best anecdotes.
Suggest a future Pondering Punctuation topic in the comments!