Polite and charming fantasy author Peter V. Brett, whom I hung out with quite a bit at World Fantasy and who has a three-book deal with Del Rey right now (any authors putting off writing for any reason have to read his post about writing his first novel on his cell phone, with his thumbs), asked the following question in my “What would you like?” post:

But that brings me to my topic request: the interrobang.

I like to use them, usually with the question mark first, followed by the exclamation point, because I think the lack of a punctuation mark that adequately covers the instance of a shouted or excited question weakens prose, and the interrobang is a solution embraced by common culture that has become perfectly acceptable even in polite company.

I know that some editors, however, do not agree, saying that it is the equivalent of putting :) in your prose, and it should be relegated to informal IM speak and not a proper-full length novel.

First, as Peter is doing, when I refer to interrobangs here, I’m not referring to the combined punctuation mark shown in the Wikipedia article (I’ve never seen one of those marks in print and don’t think most readers would know what it was) but just to an exclamation point and question mark together. Also, copyeditors are sometimes given instructions by editors or production editors to delete such interrobangs, and if that is the case, I delete them; that’s my job, and the editor knows the book on a different level than the copyeditor can.

My personal opinion on interrobangs is that the way they come across depends quite a bit on your prose. I’ve seen styles where they didn’t seem to fit, and I’ve seen others where they meshed very well. I’ve also seen individual sentences that I thought were made more clear by the interrobang even though the punctuation might not have been appropriate through the whole manuscript.

The solution favored by The Chicago Manual of Style is that if a question really is an exclamation, you use the exclamation point. (I use this rule for questions that really are statements, too, and let the author use a period at the end if the tone clearly calls for that.) Sometimes, though, the sentence isn’t phrased as a question, and so the problem a copyeditor can run into if we have to delete interrobangs wholesale is that further description might be needed in order for the reader to properly “hear” the tone intended. A great example of this is given in the Wikipedia entry linked above: “You’re going out with her?!” The sentence reads very differently if only a question mark or exclamation point is used, and authors who use the interrobang have not always described the tone or the agitation of the speaker otherwise, because the interrobang does that work for you. I do, then, sometimes find it necessary to query an author about clarifying the tone if I’ve been asked to delete the interrobangs. (If I haven’t been asked to delete them, I gauge the need to do so on a case-by-case basis.)

I’ll have more on unusual punctuation in my next post. :)

5 thoughts on “Interrobangs!?”

  1. I know I tend to overuse italics in my own writing, but my preferred solution would be:

    “You’re going out with [i]her[/i]?”

    This would be followed by something that indicated the tone, such as, “he asked incredulously.”

    I don’t know if italics for stress can be used in place of all Interrobangs, but in prose, it would never occur to me to use them, as I do consider them (to a degree) chat speak. But then, I’ve known people who are not at all keen on italics, so it could just be preference. Which would you prefer?

  2. Hi, Alana. Yes, italics could certainly be used that way, and for that particular sentence it’s a good solution and might even be preferable so that it’s more clear whether the emphasis is on “going out” or “her.”

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