Interrobang (Punctuation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

interrobang
(WOLF LΔMBERT/Wikimedia Commons)

Definition

The interrobang is a nonstandard mark of punctuation in the form of a question mark superimposed on an exclamation point (sometimes appearing as ?!), used to end a rhetorical question or a simultaneous question and exclamation.

A blend of the words interrogation and bang, interrobang is an old printer’s term for the exclamation mark. Though editor Martin K. Speckter is generally credited with the mark's invention in 1962 (its name was suggested by a reader of Speckter's magazine, Type Talks), a version of the interrobang had already been used for decades in the speech balloons of comic strips.

Mac McGrew has characterized the interrobang as "the first new punctuation mark to have been introduced in three hundred years and the only one invented by an American" (American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, 1993). However, the mark is rarely used, and it hardly ever appears in formal writing.

Pronunciation 

in-TER-eh-bang

Examples and Observations

"What's up with English punctuations?!

Usually we have a glut,

but for certain situations,

we don't have a mark?! Say what?!"

(James Harbeck, "Where Is the Interrobang?!" Songs of Love and Grammar. Lulu, 2012)

Martin Speckter on the Need for the Interrobang

"To this day, we don’t know exactly what Columbus had in mind when he shouted ‘Land, ho.’ Most historians insist that he cried, ‘Land, ho!’ but there are others who claim it was really ‘Land ho?’ Chances are the intrepid Discoverer was both excited and doubtful, but neither at that time did we, nor even yet, do we, have a point which clearly combines and melds interrogation with exclamation."

(Martin K. Speckter, "Making a New Point, or How About That . . .." Type Talks, March-April, 1962)

From Martin Speckter's Obituary

"From 1956 to 1969, Mr. Speckter was president of Martin K. Speckter Associates Inc. . . . In 1962, Mr. Speckter developed the interrobang, since recognized by several dictionaries and some type and typewriter companies.

"The mark is said to be the typographical equivalent of a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders. It applied solely to the rhetorical, Mr. Speckter said, when a writer wished to convey incredulity.

"For example, the interrobang would be used in an expression like this: 'You call that a hat?!'"

("Martin K. Speckter, 73, Creator of Interrobang." The New York Times, February 16, 1988)

The Short-Lived Interrobang Fad

- "[F]everish interest in Martin Speckter's invention followed the release of Remington's interrobang key [on typewriters in the 1960s]. . . . 

"Unfortunately, the interrobang's status as a cause célèbre during the late 1960s and early 1970s proved ephemeral, and its popularity reached a plateau even as Remington Rand's interrobang key let the average typist make use of it. A creation of the advertising world--and considered by some an unnecessary one at that--the interrobang faced resistance in literary and academic spheres and was beset by more prosaic technical difficulties at almost every turn. . . .

"[A] combination of factors--the six-year delay in getting the new character from composition to printing; the sheer inertia of punctuation practice; doubt as to the grammatical need for a new symbol--sent the interrobang to an early grave.

By the early 1970s it had largely fallen out of use, and the chance for its widespread acceptance seemed to have been missed."

(Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Norton, 2013)

- "In many ways one could say that the interrobang has now been superseded by the emoticon, which makes similar use of glyph combinations in order to add emphasis and feeling to the sentence that precedes it."

(Liz Stinson, "The Secret History of the Hashtag, Slash, and Interrobang." Wired, October 21, 2015)

William Zinnser on the Interrobang

"According to its sponsors, the [interrobang] is getting support from 'typographers who recommend it for its ability to express the incredibility of modern life.'

"Well, I certainly agree that modern life is incredible.

Most of us, in fact, now go through our days in a state of 'Really?!'--if not 'Are you kidding?!' Still, I seriously doubt if we are going to solve the problem by creating new punctuation marks. That only clutters up a language more. . . .

"Besides, let in one man's interrobang and you let in every nut who is trying to express the incredibility of modern life."

(William Zinnser, "For Clear Expression: Try Words." Life, November 15, 1968)

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