Understanding Percontation Punctuation Marks

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

irony mark – a punctuation mark to indicate irony
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The percontation mark (also known as the punctus percontativus or percontation point) is a late-medieval mark of punctuation (؟) used to signal the close of a rhetorical question.

In rhetoric, percontatio is a type of "affective" (as opposed to information-seeking) question, similar to epiplexis. In The Arte of Rhetoric (1553), Thomas Wilson makes this distinction: "We doo aske often-tymes, because we would knowe: we do aske also, because we woulde chide, and sette furthe our grief with more vehemencie, the one is called Interrogatio, the other is percontatio." The percontation mark was used (for a brief period of time) to identify this second type of question.

Examples and Observations

  • "When punctuation was first invented by Aristophanes, librarian at Alexandria in the 4th century BC, he suggested that readers could use middle (·), low (.), and high points (˙) to punctuate writing according to the rules of rhetoric. Despite this, it took another two millennia before the eponymous rhetorical question got its own mark of punctuation. Worried that his readers would not catch such a subtle figure of speech, in the late sixteenth century the English printer Henry Denham created the percontation mark—a reversed question mark--to address the problem. . . .
    "Faced with a wave of apathy, use of the percontation mark had petered out within fifty years of its birth." (Keith Houston, "8 Punctuation Marks That Are No Longer Used." Huffington Post, September 24, 2013)
  • "The percontation-mark (or punctus percontativus), the standard Arabic question mark, indicated 'percontations,' questions open to any answer or (more loosely) 'rhetorical questions,' in various books of c.1575-c.1625. This usage seems to have been invented by the translator Anthonie Gilbie or his printer Henry Denham (a pioneer of the semi-colon): roman examples appear in their psalms of Dauid (1581), black letter ones in Turberville's Tragicall Tales (1587). It didn't catch on in print because, being reversed, expensive new type was needed, but was used by scribes including Crane, who worked on Shakespeare's First Folio: so how did compositors set percontation-marks present in their copy but not type-cases? One possibility is that italic or black letter question-marks amid roman type record otherwise unsettable percontation-marks." (John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • "[Henry] Denham seems to have been interested in punctuation, since two of the books he published in the 1580s contain another new, but rare symbol, the percontativus . . .. This consists of a reversed, but not inverted, interrogativus and is used to mark a percontatio, i.e. a 'rhetorical' question, one which does not require an answer. . . . For the most part 16th- and 17th-century authors and compositors either omitted to mark a percontatio, or used the interrogativus, but the percontativus does appear from time to time in the 17th century: for example, in the holographs of Robert Herrick and Thomas Middleton." (M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation. University of California Press, 1993)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Percontation Punctuation Marks." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/percontation-mark-punctuation-1691603. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Understanding Percontation Punctuation Marks. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/percontation-mark-punctuation-1691603 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Percontation Punctuation Marks." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/percontation-mark-punctuation-1691603 (accessed December 6, 2022).