I’m a writer, and as such, I love the power of words. I also love the power of punctuation. There’s so much tone, mood, emotion, and subtext that comes from setting your pace, whether drawing attention to a moment by letting it rest or creating urgency with short sentences. Small changes can make subtle but significant differences.
Consider this phrase: “you call that a scarf”
With a question mark, it’s a question, albeit it a kind of strange one.
You call that a scarf?
Maybe the person is new to English and is learning a new word. Maybe the scarf in question is decorative or worn untraditionally, so the question of it being considered a scarf is legitimate curiosity.
But what if you want that question to express dismay or incredulity, suggesting what’s being worn as a scarf isn’t a scarf at all.
You call that a scarf!?
Pair the question mark with an exclamation mark and you get a different tone. So what if that was one punctuation mark unto itself, something designed expressly for rhetorical dismay? Meet the Interrobang, the forgotten punctuation mark perfect for the modern era.
The Interrobang occupies an odd spot in the modern grammar landscape. It’s almost like it’s writing’s best kept public secret. It gets coverage from time to time — a 2010 New Yorker article made it sound new. The Economist covered it in 2014. Bloggers pick it up from time to time. It has a cult following, but you never see it used. Before getting into why that surprises me, let’s go over some backstory.
Punctuation isn’t something we think about much. Most of us learn about periods and commas in grade school, how to punctuate questions, never really grasp the semi-colon, and move on. But it all had to come from somewhere because ancient languages didn’t have the structure we have now.
Ancient Greeks didn’t have punctuation. It was a very oral-heavy society with low literacy rates. Those who could read were faced with walls of text. There was no spacing, no punctuation, and the text zigzagged left to right then right to left on the following line mimicking how an ox moves in a field, which gives the style its name: boustrophedon.