The Interrobang

Interrobang? Interabang? Interobang? What is this punctuation mark, and why don't we know how to spell it?

Erik Deckers, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #487


[A humor piece by Erik Deckers.]

The cool thing about being a writer is that you're often given freedom to do unusual things, and you get to care about weird subjects. For example, when I go to a coffee shop, I make sure the logo on the cup and the sleeve both line up with the drinking hole in the plastic lid.

Being a writer also means I have an unnatural interest in language and punctuation that borders on the freakish. By now, my family and friends are used to me complaining about the Oxford comma, or yelling at TV newscasters, "It's 'a historic,' jerk! 'A historic,' not 'an historic!''"

I cringe whenever someone uses certain words incorrectly. I kick and scream when the meaning of other words begins to evolve. Or I just smile and say, "English is an ever-changing tapestry,” when I purposely violate long-held rules just to stick it to grammar sticklers.

Like this: It is actually perfectly acceptable to end your sentences with a preposition. But when I say this to some people, they swear on the grave of their 7th grade English teacher that this is utter nonsense, up with which they shall not put!

And sometimes people will even share new words, grammar rules, and punctuation marks with me. 

A couple years ago, I was introduced to the interrobang, a punctuation mark that combines the function of the question mark (also called the interrogative point) and the exclamation point (called the "bang" in printers' jargon).

The word, just like the symbol, is a portmanteau—a blend of two words.

If you Google the word "interrobang," you'll see a question mark with an exclamation point lying right on top of it.

It's supposed to replace the question mark/exclamation point combination people use in angry questions, like "Who ate all my Cap'n Crunch?!" It could have been a very useful symbol for those people who hate the ?! combo and believe we shouldn't double punctuate.

Like my newspaper editors.

They feel we should just ask the question and let the language show that it's an angry one.

Who appointed them the Arbiters of Punctuation‽

(See how that works?)

The origin of the interrobang

I first learned of the interrobang after reading Keith Houston's book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, because I'm a word nerd and we read books like that.

It was created by ad agency owner Martin Speckter, and introduced in the March-April 1962 issue of TypeTalks magazine. After gaining some media attention, it was added to a new font called Americana in 1966, and was added to the Remington Rand typewriter line in 1968. Even today, you can find it on your Mac or Windows computer, if you know where to look.

As I was writing the first draft of this piece on my typewriter — yes, typewriter. I did mention I'm a writer nerd?—I created the interrobang by first hitting the "interro," or question mark, backspaced, and then follow it up with the "bang". (I even said "bang" out loud, and it gave me a little nerdy thrill.)

I worry the interrobang will never catch on, however. We Americans are set in our ways, and it takes a lot to get us to change how we do things, especially if it means adding new ideas and habits.

That's not to say we didn't give it the old college try. Even now, it's seeing a mild resurgence among a new generation of writers. It just never quite caught on, after being labeled a fad by many language snobs who never end their sentences with prepositions ever, no matter how wrong they are.

(Not that I'm bitter or anything.)

The interrobang versus emoji

What's really insulting to interrobang fans is how readily people have adopted emoji, the small cartoony images on your smartphone used to represent emotions in people's otherwise gibberish texts.

They're cutesy little graphics of smiley faces, frowny faces, and every variation of human emotion. Whatever happened to the good old days of typing a semi-colon, a dash, and a right parenthesis for a winky face? Or a colon, dash, and capital D to show laughter?

I know emoji are the natural evolution of the text-based emoticons, but I was more than a little surprised (equal sign, number 8, dash, lowercase o) that they caught on so quickly.

Meanwhile, the interrobang is hidden away in our computers and needs a hunting party and three bloodhounds just to track it down.

While I certainly have mellowed out over the years, and no longer rant over the egregious "I seen" or a misused apostrophe (seriously, people don't use an apostrophe in DVDs!), I can only shake my head at adults who punctuate text messages with cartoon kitty-cats.

Three cheers for the interrobang

The interrobang has a proud, if obscure, 52-year tradition. It signaled an important new change in how we communicate with each other, while emoji make writers everywhere die a little inside.

I want to use this opportunity to re-introduce the interrobang as an important punctuation mark, used for the truly important questions of our day.

Like, seriously, you guys, who ate my Cap'n Crunch‽

(A version of this article originally appeared as a newspaper humor column in April 2014.)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Erik Deckers, Writing for Grammar Girl

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and the co-author of four social media books, including "Branding Yourself." He recently published his first humor novel, "Mackinac Island Nation," and celebrated his 25th anniversary as a newspaper humor columnist. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida.

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