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Interrobang: How this handy punctuation mark fell out of style –

It’s no secret that the internet has revolutionised how we communicate.

We can have face-to-face chats with people across the globe for free, condense our speech into quick acronyms and emojis, and expose our genitalia to strangers without so much as a polite “hello” first.

But even in an age where we’re using text to communicate more than ever, there’s one punctuation mark that has failed to survive the test of time: the interrobang.

The interrobang was first conceptualised in 1962 — a combination of the exclamation and question marks, mashed together into one explosive symbol:

The combined symbol was first coined by Martin Speckter, a journalist-turned-advertising-executive who found it visually displeasing to use multiple punctuation marks in one go, according to The Economist.

Both the word and the symbol are a fusion — “interro” referring to the question mark (as in, to interrogate) and the “bang” referring to the exclamation point (hooray for onomatopoeia). According to the creator, it was a rhetorical symbol used to convey incredulity.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the loud punctuation mark enjoyed a respectable degree of prominence. It was included on special typewriters, featured by news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Herald Tribune, and TIME magazine, and appeared in numerous dictionaries.

But today — while it’s still included in many modern typefaces, including Apple and Microsoft’s operating systems — the symbol largely goes unused. Our own newsroom’s Content Management System can’t publish it without crashing, even though a number of other useless symbols — ^, `, < > and { }, to name a few — are all a-okay.

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Why didn’t the interrobang stand the test of time? We still technically use it all the time — the base sentiment of it, at least — but it’s expressed as two separate “?!” symbols. “You did what?!”

Yet other punctuation marks — like the semicolon, which deemed “maddening” and “just plain silly”, or that spiky, useless apostrophe below the Escape button on your keyboard — have managed to sustain their livelihoods on the modern keyboard.

Years ago, there was a rumour that the symbol failed to survive because the creator wanted a royalty. But his wife, Penny Speckter, said this wasn’t true.

“That’s absolutely untrue. The whole idea was to make it ubiquitous,” she told online literary magazine The Millions.

Penny herself called for its return — noting its relevance in the shouty, let’s-all-use-rhetorical-questions-to-make-a-point world of American politics over the past decade.

“I can’t tell you how many times while watching the Republican debates on television that I thought to myself, ‘What did he just say?!’” she said.

The Economist suggests the failure of the interrobang to really take off may just come down to the natural evolutionary nature of language.

“Language develops naturally over time, and most attempts to shape it fail. Other examples of failed punctuation inventions include the irony mark and the trademarked ‘SarcMark’.”

But there is still hope for the interrobang’s return to ubiquity.

The internet and social media have seen the return of a number of previously infrequently-used symbols — most notably the hashtag.

It’s also seen the return of the tilde — this ~squiggly~ dash — which traditionally means “approximately” but is now widely used to question or cast doubt on a word or idea.

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And let’s not forget the once-rarely-seen @ and _ symbols, which are now featured in billions of email addresses and social media handles.

In 2013, Peter Robinson, a poet and professor in the department of English literature at Reading University, wrote an opinion piece calling for the return of the interrobang.

The interrobang, Mr Robinson argued in The Guardian, could make a grand comeback in this day and age.

“In many ways, with its balance of excitement and outrage, it is perfect for the fast-moving, shockaholic nature of social media,” he wrote. “And how perfect the interrobang would look in a comment at the bottom of an article extolling the virtues of a bizarre punctuation mark while lives are lost overseas.”

For what it’s worth, you can conveniently recreate the symbol by making it a shortcut on your phone. Just find the Keyboard Shortcuts tab in your phone setting, and copy and paste the phrase in with “?!” as the shortcut, like so:

If no one else, we’re pretty sure Donald Trump would be all over it.

@gavindfernando |


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