Punctuation for the Adventurous

I’m generally considered something of a Punctuation Nazi – there are at least two people I frequently work with (and who shall remain nameless) who freely admit that they just hurl punctuation marks randomly at things they plan to show me, in the utter certainty that I will be unable to resist sorting them out. I actually care about the difference between a semi-colon and an en dash, and have (in my own mind, at least) a satisfactory rule to determine when an em dash should be used instead. (Before you start pounding the keyboard to tell me all the examples of places on this site where I’ve gotten it wrong, I plead the Whitman†.)

Confession time: yes, I read (and reread, repeatedly) Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. And yes, I struggle to not shout things like “This sign is illiterate!” when I pass by examples of apostrophe abuse. And on one occasion I made the mistake of mentioning to my doctor that a sign in the waiting room was incorrectly punctuated. He then took me out to the waiting room – the very full waiting room – and proceeded to ask exactly what was wrong, how it should be corrected, what the rule was, and if there was anything else that was incorrect … and that still didn’t stop me.

Back to topic. I was surprised and delighted to come across a reference to two and a half useful bits of punctuation that I didn’t know existed – the wonderfully named ‘interrobang’ or ‘quesclamation mark’; the equally funkily named ‘snark’, or ‘irony mark’; and the snark’s Medieval ancestor, the ‘percontation point’ (punctus percontativus).(Is anyone else wondering what kind of animal a ‘punctus percontativus’ could be? Maybe a carnivorous plant …).

The interrobang is a symbol used to indicate that a question is being asked in an excited manner, or is one that expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. It’s the “What the—” mark. The symbol itself was invented by a gentleman called Martin K. Speckter, and was apparently very popular in the 1960’s. Essentially it’s just an exclamation mark superimposed on a question mark. To use it in XML, you type: & # x 2 0 3 D ; (without spaces) or if you want it for wordprocessing (and why wouldn’t you?) and have MS Office, it’s the right bracket key in Webdings 2.

The irony mark is a symbol suggested for use in situations where it would be helpful to indicate that a statement is intended to be ironic. Apparently it’s never been used widely, and it appears occasionally in obscure artistic or literary publications. It was even proposed by a poet – ‘Alcanter de Brahm’ (aka Marcel Bernhardt). It looks like a small, backward-facing question mark, and is essentially the same as …

the percontation point, which was a late medieval symbol used to indicate a rhetorical question. Apparently it fell from favour in the 1600’s, so I probably don’t need to feel guilty about not knowing it.

The fun just never stops …

† see Song of Myself; section 51, stanza 3.


2 thoughts on “Punctuation for the Adventurous

  1. Punctuation Nazi, indeed … yes, there’s a few of us about.
    So, in the spirit of all Punctuation Nazis everywhere, let me point out that you shouldn’t be using apostrophes in your years (1960’s, 1600’s) as above as they are plurals, ie, you are talking about the decade or the century.
    There’s a funny QI clip on YouTube where they talk about the grocer’s apostrophe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-MksKEXXZc


    • Hmm, I thought it was one of the few places where it was considered appropriate to use an apostrophe for neither possession or contraction … Robin Williams agrees with you. According to Lynn Truss,
      “Until quite recently, it was customary to write “MP’s” “1980’s” – and in fact this convention still applies in America.”
      Which would explain why it feels like something I’ve seen used that way. But thank you, I shall try to get that correction lodged in my brain!

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