2 Comments

What the…?!

When ending a sentence where you want to add a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end, is it “?!” or “!?”? I always use the latter because I feel it looks better, but I see the first version used most of the time. Is the question mark plus exclamation point even acceptable?

–Brian

Someone else asked me this same question on Twitter, and I was surprised to get it twice because I had frankly never really thought about it.

My first reaction was, “Nah, there’s no rule about that.” But just to be sure, I consulted Garner’s Modern American Usage, the AP Stylebook, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and the Chicago Manual of Style. They were nearly all mum on the subject. The closest thing I found to an answer was in Chicago:

“If a question mark and an exclamation point are both called for, only the mark more appropriate to the context should be used.” –CMoS 15, 6.123

Doubling up on punctuation like that is a no-no in most edited writing, so that’s why there’s no rule about what order the exclamation point and question mark should be in.

But that doesn’t mean it’s never acceptable. It’s common in casual writing—so common, in fact, that people have created a single punctuation mark that combines the two. It’s called the interrobang, and it looks like this: ‽

Furthermore, I think it’s useful to be able to use both sometimes. Let’s say you come home and find your deadbeat roommate watching a pygmy goat eat out of your open fridge. You’re angry and confused about this situation, so you say:

      A. “What the hell!”
      B. “What the hell?”
      C. “What the hell!?” or “What the hell?!”

Option A implies that your roommate’s antics are regularly so outrageous that finding an ungulate snacking on your chèvre is less mystifying than maddening, so you’re simply yelling at your roommate in a fury. Option B implies you’re saying it in an almost wondering tone, overcome by the surreality of the scene, unable yet to express the rage that will surely come later. Option C implies that you knew your roommate was an inconsiderate jerk and you wouldn’t put much past them, but they somehow managed to surprise you while simultaneously confirming the depths of scumbaggery you always suspected they possessed. If you absolutely had to, you could choose between options A and B, but dammit, sometimes you just want option C.

So when one or the other just won’t do, it’s fine to use both an exclamation point and a question mark in casual writing, and it makes no difference what order you use them in.

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2 comments on “What the…?!

  1. It’s too bad that the interrobang is really just a superimposition of two symbols (though I suppose that depends a bit on the font). It tends to look messy and as though it’s in boldface.

  2. The good thing about this is that there’s really no widely accepted rule while people everywhere understand (or at least in my mind) what it means, so we can sleep at night, knowing that the grammar police will just cruise past our houses without even batting an eyelash.

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