National Punctuation Day Reignites Interrobang Passion

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News | Stephen Coles | September 24, 2008

America seems to have a particular habit of designating hundreds of special days in celebration of niche interests to the extent that every day of the year is packed with unofficial holidays and observances. Well here’s one I can get behind: National Punctuation Day. Not only is it purely typographic in nature, it also offers me an excuse to trump my favorite forgotten punctuation, the interrobang. Wikipedia describes it well: “a nonstandard English-language punctuation mark intended to combine the functions of the question mark (also called the interrogative point) and the exclamation mark or exclamation point (known in printers’ jargon as the bang)”. Here’s a little history:

In 1966, Richard Isbell of American Type Founders issued the Americana typeface and included the interrobang as one of the characters. In 1968, an interrobang key was available on some Remington typewriters. During the 1970s, it was possible to buy replacement interrobang keycaps and strikers for some Smith-Corona typewriters. The interrobang was in vogue for much of the 1960s, with the word “interrobang” appearing in some dictionaries and the mark itself being featured in magazine and newspaper articles.

I submit that the reason the interrobang didn’t catch on is due mostly to its design. The smashing of straight and curved vertical strokes atop each other is hardly a graceful combination, and it gets especially messy at text sizes (‽). Were it drawn more thoughtfully like those of Christian Schwartz‘s Amplitude and Fritz, the interrobang might be part of our standard punctuation today, a member of the basic Latin character set, and common in our written vernacular.

Interrobang
Interrobangs from Amplitude and Fritz by Christian Schwartz for the Font Bureau.

Which brings me to some other punctuational news. According to the Punctuation Day site, “Punctuation Man breaks with Associated Press, endorses serial comma!”

In support of the National Education Association’s “Read Across America” program on March 3, the nation’s leading authority on helping school children, teachers, and parents learn proper punctuation skills declares that the serial comma should be taught, used, and accepted universally.

Amen. I have long been a champion of the Oxford/Harvard/serial comma and I’m pleased to have anyone, no matter how silly their title, behind me. Go, fight, and win!

Header image: Students at a school in Auburn, Michigan celebrate National Punctuation Day.

29 Comments:

  1. Now I want a post about the irony mark.

    Posted by Shu on Sep. 24, 2008
  2. I always liked the Interrobang. Maybe because my school’s paper was named after it?

    I like the IDEA of it anyway. If it’s grammatically improper to use two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence, sometimes both are kind of useful.

    (Somewhere an english teacher wants to kick me in the teeth.)

    Posted by Marc on Sep. 24, 2008
  3. Amen to the serial comma. I’ve long been a champion of that particular style and it annoys me to no end that it isn’t more widely employed.

    You inspired to write my own post in support of it:

    http://www.slantsixcreative.com/2008/09/24/yes-yes-and-yes-use-the-serial-comma/

    Great work as always here.

    Posted by neal s on Sep. 24, 2008
  4. Hooray for Punctuation Day! And if we can get the serial comma standardised, I’d be very happy indeed.

    Posted by Elliot Jay Stocks on Sep. 25, 2008
  5. Another vote for the serial comma. My mother (who is an editor) has a favorite real-world example of the perils of omitting the final comma. This was a dedication in a book: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. Assuming the author intended three dedicatees and did not in fact have extraordinary parentage, the second comma really should have been employed.

    Posted by Kent Lew on Sep. 25, 2008
  6. Only thing, there are just equal perils in mandating the serial comma.
    If the sentence was “To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”, that would be pretty unambiguous, while the use of the comma would introduce ambiguity: “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” – now Ayn Rand is the second dedicatee or the name of the first one?
    As usual, there are very few absolute languages rules. Most of the time, you can’t escape a “when appropriate” note.

    Posted by abu on Sep. 25, 2008
  7. Anyway, the interrobang mark is really cool! Never read of it before.
    To me as an european, it also look pretty american, for the typical emphatic and rethoric style of american vernacular.

    Posted by abu on Sep. 25, 2008
  8. The serial comma, in my opinion, is really only suitable for academic purposes. The language has changed and many of the old rules no longer apply. These include ending sentences with prepositions, beginning sentences with “and”, proper use of sentence fragments and so forth. The written word is rightfully becoming more and more like the spoken word.

    Posted by Mike Wilkie on Sep. 25, 2008
  9. I’m no fan of the interrobang; whatever next!? Smilies, no doubt. But, yes, let’s see the serial comma as standard. You must be running out of available slots for “National Days.”

    Posted by johno on Sep. 25, 2008
  10. The written word is rightfully becoming more and more like the spoken word.

    But Mike, we have the benefit of inflection and rhythm when we speak. In writing we rely on punctuation to emulate those things so the message and tone isn’t lost.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Sep. 25, 2008
  11. Good point, Stephen. I will maintain my position, however, that use of the serial comma should be at the writer’s discretion, to be used when the format and conext are appropiate. Generally speaking, I think it is appropriate in academic, journalistic and official texts.

    Posted by Mike Wilkie on Sep. 25, 2008
  12. Agreed. My vote (and FontShop/FontFeed style) is to use it as a default unless it misconstrues the meaning of the sentence.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Sep. 25, 2008
  13. Hurrah for the serial comma!

    Posted by Andrew Dunning on Sep. 25, 2008
  14. I believe one proper way to clarify the dedication, “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God,” would be to use a semicolon: “To my mother, Ayn Rand; and God.” If that was what you meant, of course.

    Posted by Jeanne S on Sep. 25, 2008
  15. Bram.us » Punctuation: Interrobang and Serial Comma referenced this article:

    [...] Interrobang, nor the Serial Comma before (although I use the latter every now and then). Thank you National Punctuation Day for bringing this up! (via) Spread the [...]

  16. @abu: There might be examples that argue against the serial comma, but yours doesn’t have to be one of them, since your “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” should be punctuated (and phrased): “To my mother Ayn Rand and to God”

    Posted by Rich on Sep. 26, 2008
  17. I love the interrobang but I find the both symbols on one dot made by Schwartz very flashy. Do you really think his design would work better in normal copy text sizes? I believe it becomes to wide.
    This is not to say I like current designs used in fonts, actually the ones that mostly turn up in copy writing are the plain overlays of the 2 symbols which makes the exclamation mark cut trough the question mark. This is what makes it so much more fuzzy on small sizes. I believe that when it doesn’t cut it looks much better.

    Posted by Martijn on Sep. 26, 2008
  18. I’ve been an interrobang fan (I liked it so much, I bought the company!) for a long time — the handle I’m using above is the same one I’ve been using pretty much everywhere online since 1998.

    Posted by Interrobang on Sep. 26, 2008
  19. The serial comma is one of the few things that distinguishes us from savages, animals, and other such uncultured things.

    Posted by Ran Barton on Sep. 26, 2008
  20. The whole point of the example is that Ayn Rand isn’t the mother.

    Posted by Tom on Sep. 26, 2008
  21. Look, we don’t have special “quommas” or “periotation marks” for the combination of quotation mark + comma/period. The two marks serve different functions, so it makes sense to keep them separate. Same should apply to the interrobang. Most interrobang designs admit this truth directly by being a simple mash-up of “?” and “!”. If they don’t add up to something qualitatively different, why mash them together at all? It’s just “w” all over again. Our language doesn’t need that, people.

    Another problem with the interrobang: Its design tends to imply the order “!?”. This is 100% incorrect and rightly unacceptable to all freedom-loving folk.

    Posted by Matt on Sep. 26, 2008
  22. Unacceptable to all freedom-loving folk‽ Good Heavens, man. Rules are meant to be broken. Besides, the interrobang’s usage was already established. That makes it traditional. ;)

    Stephen, I love Schwartz’s designs. My question for you is how do we encourage other designers to adopt Schwartz’s interpretation? The interrobang is already part of the Unicode character set. What’s needed is a way to influence designers to update their fonts with the new interrobang form. What would you recommend?

    Posted by D on Sep. 26, 2008
  23. Those new designs look too comic-booky.

    The interrobang is never going to catch on. Punctuation is decreasing, not increasing. The semicolon is not long for this world.

    Smilies have a better chance of making it into type fonts than the interrobang.

    Posted by ご想像にお任せします on Sep. 27, 2008
  24. The smiley!? That bastard lovechild of Inchoate Thought and Lazy Imprecision?!
    Heaven preserve us.

    Posted by Intaglio on Oct. 1, 2008
  25. Thank you for appreciating the serial comma! I have always been taught to use it and find its lack of use disappointing.

    Posted by Bonnie on Nov. 2, 2008
  26. Yes, yes, yes, yes to the serial comma!

    Posted by anomalous4 on Dec. 31, 2008
  27. Unacceptable to all freedom-loving folk‽ Good Heavens, man. Rules are meant to be broken. Besides, the interrobang’s usage was already established. That makes it traditional. ;)

    Posted by radyo dinle on Apr. 21, 2009
  28. I am now going to make a grammatical comment on a 5 year old blog post. God forgive me.

    In the phrase, “To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”, my mother could be both Ayn Rand AND God. In “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God”, my mother could be Ayn Rand but not God. In both cases, serial comma or no, there is ambiguity.

    And thus we should fully celebrate the semicolon: “To my mother; Ayn Rand; and God.” Semicolons rule! So do interrobangs.

    Posted by Ivan Bettger on Apr. 19, 2013

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