A look at some obscure punctuation marks

Did I mention this would be a lazy month on the site? That’s how it’s turning out, though maybe my overwork at my job is contributing to that. I’m actually working on an anime review right now, though I’m still at a loss about how to finish it — I set it aside for months before returning to it and rewatching a few key parts, but I’m not sure my feelings have changed much about it. Maybe you’ll see what I mean when I finally do post that review.

That should be coming soon, anyway (I hope.) For now, here’s some talk about weird punctuation marks. Back in the day when typesetting was still a pretty new concept (in the West anyway; China already had it down) punctuation wasn’t quite standardized. Even the use of the comma and period wasn’t settled for a long while. Language in general being a pretty fluid thing, then, it’s only natural that new punctuation was invented by typesetters and scholars to better perform certain functions. Like say the semicolon, a mark that isn’t that necessary to use often but that I use too often because I am a pretentious jerk. Or the ampersand, &, existing more as a sort of very specialized letter than a mark, resulting from the natural combination of the Latin et (and) into a distinct character.

What about a star? Does that count as proper punctuation?

Not all of these newly proposed marks stuck, however. Some fell out of use after a while and more simply never stuck. Yet they still exist in a sort of semi-death, still floating around available to be used for those brave enough to not care whether they confuse their readers.

Interrobang

If you know any of these marks, it’s probably this one:

This is the interrobang, a ligature or combination of a question mark and an exclamation point, the latter also known as a bang hence the name. The purpose of the interrobang is just what it seems: to mark a question asked in a surprised, angry, or agitated way (ex: “You ate the reuben I was saving‽” Truly a crime worthy of a ‽.)

The interrobang is a newer mark, proposed in the 1960s, and despite its being pretty well known among nerds like me it’s never really caught on. I can’t remember a single time I’ve seen a ‽ used in print media, and it barely ever makes an appearance online either. In fact, the only times I remember ‽ ever being used is in articles about the interrobang itself. In that sense, it’s absolutely failed as a punctuation mark — people for whatever reason just decided they’d prefer to use a ?! (or a !?, which Stack Exchange claims is different, but don’t listen to those jerks. It might mean something different in chess terminology but not in general use.) And ?! is so rarely used anyway that there’s really no need at all for ‽. The interrobang is an interesting concept, but it’s just far too specialized to be of any real use to anyone except weirdos who want to make their writing stand out for the wrong reasons.

Irony mark

Man do I hate this one. I get why someone came up with it — in fact, the idea is a lot older than the interrobang concept. But it just so completely kills the point of what it’s supposed to be achieving that it’s amazing. Maybe even ironic? Maybe not (I’m not getting into that Alanis Morissette bullshit here.)

The irony mark is meant to mark an ironic statement. Seems pretty obvious from the name, and the reason for it is obvious too. It’s a well known problem that irony can be hard to distinguish in writing, especially if you’re not familiar with the writer, their character, and the unspoken context of a statement that may or may not be ironic depending.

The trouble is that marking an ironic statement as ironic is like putting the statement this is a joke at the end of every joke you make — it kills the effect. That might be part of why ⸮ never caught on in writing despite having a far longer life than ‽. Though maybe not, since the “sarcasm tag” /s serves pretty much the same purpose and I’ve seen that used fairly often online. And if anyone reading has ever been in or seen a Twitch stream, the same is true of the Kappa emote, which gets pulled out when chat wants to make some biting comments. Even Kappa on its own can be effective at teasing the streamer (hopefully in a friendly way, but knowing Twitch, that’s not always the case.)

So maybe the real problem with ⸮ isn’t its function but its look, because a backwards question mark doesn’t really scream “irony”, at least to me. I think I’d just read it as a question mark in text. It was a lazy choice anyway — imagine having an excuse to create a new punctuation mark and just reversing an existing mark. I’m happy this mark never caught on. (Note: I’ve seen ⸮ also called a “percontation point” meant to mark a rhetorical question, but the same criticisms apply here — a rhetorical question should be obvious from context. Though to the percontation point’s credit, at least it makes sense that it looks like a question mark. Edit: also note that the irony mark is sometimes cited as having a slightly different shape than the “reversed question mark”, but fuck, that is just what it looks like to me. It’s close enough that my brain still reads it as a reversed question mark anyway.

Any of the marks created by Hervé Bazin

Hervé Bazin was a French author who in the 60s proposed a set of new punctuation to express various feelings, like his “love mark”, two mirrored question marks over a single dot in the shape of a heart, or his “acclamation mark”, a similarly doubled exclamation point, or his own version of the irony mark. I’m not sure whether any of this ever caught on in French, but I doubt it, and I know it didn’t in English. Bazin’s punctuation marks are so rarely used that they don’t even exist in Unicode. Even the interrobang has a Unicode entry, meaning you can place it into your own text if you feel like it, but these don’t. Sorry, Mr. Bazin, though credit where it’s due for actually bothering to make up new marks instead of repurposing or reversing old ones.

Looking back, though, it’s pretty obvious why none of these caught on. In formal/published text, their functions were far too specific to establish new characters for them. You might ask why not just throw them in anyway, but for centuries, printers and typesetters were the ones who would have had to deal with that extra type, and if they didn’t deem new characters necessary, they sure as hell weren’t going to bother with them. They’ve exerted a surprising amount of influence on modern English for that reason, creating new letters and dropping old ones through decades and centuries of custom. So why mess around with a new mark like ‽ when the old ?! or !? do just as well?

And in casual text, we already have a far superior alternative (at least in terms of range of emotion and function): emojis. These might not be “formal” parts of our languages, but they’ve become actual parts of our written communication over the last few decades starting with the old 90s mostly sideways emoticons, and they’ve made any new punctuation that expresses particular emotions unnecessary. You might not like them — hell, I don’t really care for them myself and barely ever use them except when it feels absolutely necessary. But they’ve caught on, and if you can’t call these pictographs language because they don’t usually have sounds attached to them, then at least you can say they function as a kind of informal punctuation. Maybe. I’m not a linguist, I don’t know. What’s your opinion?

Finally, just a note on some of the articles I’ve seen about these marks while looking them up: almost all of them are titled “13 rarely used punctuation marks you should use/never knew you needed” or similar. I know that’s just how these titles are always written, but as long as words have meanings I can criticize them, so here: I’ve gotten along fine without interrobangs or irony marks, and even without emojis. I never knew I needed them because I don’t need them. None of this is to dump on their creators — they had some clever and interesting concepts, but again, there are good reasons those concepts never caught on. As for the authors of those articles, I get the game there too. I guess I’m playing it as well, though not quite as well as they do. Just adding my own commentary here if anyone cares.

Anyway that’s my nerd rant about language, and maybe not my only one. I guess this counts as talking shop for a writer, doesn’t it? Until next time‽⸮

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4 thoughts on “A look at some obscure punctuation marks

  1. This was a fun and interesting read. I liked the interrobang. mostly because of its name. I wouldn’t want to use it because it looks so messy. Convoluted?! Like, when you make a mistake and have to cross it out.

    By the way, I’m loving the Cafe Bustelo. It’s so much smoother than Nescafe when it comes to instant coffee. Of course, since it tastes better I’m probably drinking way more than I should.

    Thanks for another informative blog.

    • Thanks! I like the interrobang as an idea, but in execution it isn’t so great, is it. I guess you can get the same effect by stamping one over the other.

      Nice to hear about the coffee too. I think Bustelo may be stronger than Nescafe — it does say instant espresso on the front, though I drink it in “normal” coffee form. I try to keep it to three cups a day max, otherwise my heart will never keep up.

  2. If I had know about these marks as a tween, I would have used them EVERYWHERE!

    Especially since I despised emojis. I thought they were stupid and people who used them were illiterate dorks and simply writing a sentence to convey your emotions made more sense and showed your intelligence (maybe also because I couldn’t figure out what most of the emojis meant, looking so unlike the natural human expressions that I already saw very little of).

    I’ve started using emojis with some resentment. But I’m fine with them now. Though I personally prefer the ones you make with keyboard symbols to the brightly-coloured, goofy-looking ones.

    But I’m older now and have no use for such impracticalities in my writing (sadly).

    • Understandable. These are some interesting marks. I felt the same way as you did about emojis for a long time, though I can appreciate their role these days better now, yeah. It is interesting as well to see how some certain emojis have gained very different meanings than you’d expect from how they look.

      Those keyboard emojis feel like a real throwback these days. I still like them better myself.

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