Earlier this week I learned about another wonderful punctuation mark that seems to have fallen out of use – or I should say never really caught on – Percontation point or the Rhetorical Question mark. It might be used most appropriately in – are you crazy – where clearly the speaker is not expecting a response.
In the late 16th century, English printer Henry Denham was concerned that the unsavvy readers of English may not catch on to the fact that the question did not require a response and proposed the use of a backward question mark to indicate a rhetorical question. It didn’t really catch on and it fell out of use completely by the 17th century.
I can see it being quite useful on Twitter where one often doesn’t know whether a response is required or not. It also has found use in art work and tshirts.
Sometimes an exclamation mark just does not suffice – neither does just a question mark – the two have to be used together for full impact of the incredulity and shock expressed by the question. For those times we have the interrobang. A perfect example of when an interrobang is required is when one girlfriend says to another – “He said what‽” or when you ask your family, “Who ate the last piece of cake‽”
The interrobang was first used by advertising agency owner Martin K. Specter when he used it in a TYPEtalks magazine article in 1962. The term itself is a combination of the Latin word for a rhetorical questions interrogatio, and the printer and proofreader’s slang for the exclamation mark, bang. The Remington typewriter included the interrobang key in its typewriter in 1968 – but sadly this very useful punctuation mark did not really gain much traction after the 1960s.
With its balance of excitement and outrage, and the prevalence of social media in our lives, I am surprised the interrobang has not caught on more, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Perhaps the time is right for the interrobang to rise again and take its rightful place in our shockaholic world.