ZOLTAN KOVACS

The West Australian - - AGENDA - zoltan.kovacs@wanews.com.au

So­ci­ety of Pedants (WA) pres­i­dent Bill Stick­ler came across the term “in­ter­robang” when he was do­ing re­search on the uses of the ex­cla­ma­tion mark. He told a meet­ing of SOP mem­bers that he had never pre­vi­ously seen or heard the term.

Thus he was sur­prised when he found it in rep­utable dic­tio­nar­ies, he said. For ex­am­ple, the Aus­tralian Mac­quarie Dictionary of­fered this def­i­ni­tion: “A punc­tu­a­tion mark com­pris­ing an ex­cla­ma­tion mark and a ques­tion mark to­gether (!? or ?!) in ei­ther or­der with no spac­ing in be­tween.”

The Mac­quarie noted that the term was a com­bi­na­tion of a part of “in­ter­rog­a­tive” and of “bang”, which pro­vided the “ex­clam­a­tory ef­fect”. Mr Stick­ler said the overuse of the hate­ful ex­cla­ma­tion mark in con­tem­po­rary writ­ing — es­pe­cially on­line — was painful enough to be­hold.

How­ever, the ar­ti­fi­cial com­bi­na­tion of ques­tion and ex­cla­ma­tion marks was worse — it was an of­fence against proper punc­tu­a­tion. He could see no le­git­i­mate use for it and would pay no more at­ten­tion to it. As far as he could re­mem­ber, he had never used an ex­cla­ma­tion mark in his 75 years (ex­cept per­haps in his early es­says in which he might have quoted, de­nounced and mocked ex­am­ples of ex­ces­sive reliance on it).

His rea­son was sim­ple. He dis­liked the type of florid writ­ing that at­tracted the ex­cla­ma­tion mark. How­ever, he ac­cepted that the mark had le­git­i­mate uses, mainly to sig­nify the use of ex­cla­ma­tions.

The prob­lem was that it had been hi­jacked and used as a crude at­ten­tion-seek­ing and self-ag­gran­dis­ing de­vice with no gram­mat­i­cal func­tion.

He quoted from Fowler’s Dictionary of Mod­ern English Us­age: “Ex­cept in po­etry, the ex­cla­ma­tion mark (!) should be used spar­ingly. Overuse of ex­cla­ma­tion marks in ex­pos­i­tory prose is a sure sign of an un­prac­tised writer, or one who wants to add a spu­ri­ous dash of sen­sa­tion to some­thing un­sen­sa­tional, or who wishes to un­der­line hu­mour which might oth­er­wise go un­recog­nised.”

In other words, it seemed that ha­bit­ual wield­ers of the ex­cla­ma­tion mark used it to try to dis­guise the in­ad­e­quacy of their words. When he saw a need­less ex­cla­ma­tion mark in any doc­u­ment ad­dressed to him, he thought its use was the equiv­a­lent of a speaker who grabbed his lapel to try to at­tract and hold his at­ten­tion while telling him a bad joke.

There was some­thing that was un­couth about this type of use of the ex­cla­ma­tion mark. How­ever, no one had cam­paigned se­ri­ously for its abo­li­tion, though many writ­ers of English would not miss it if it dis­ap­peared overnight.

In con­trast, there had been re­peated calls over the years for the abo­li­tion of the hap­less apos­tro­phe, partly be­cause it was rou­tinely mis­used in some pub­lic signs, shop win­dows and so on. How­ever, it was a use­ful lit­tle squig­gle, which con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to the writ­ing of clear and lit­er­ate English. It had many de­fend­ers as well as crit­ics.

In any case, no one could is­sue an edict that this or that punc­tu­a­tion mark, word or ex­pres­sion could no longer be used. No one con­trolled the use of English. It was a demo­cratic lan­guage. Its evo­lu­tion was ul­ti­mately in the hands — or the speech and writ­ing — of its users.

Mr Stick­ler said he had no­ticed lately that the ques­tion mark was in­creas­ingly mistreated as an un­nec­es­sary adorn­ment. It of­ten turned up at the ends of sen­tences that were not ques­tions. Fowler de­tected a mod­ern ten­dency to insert ques­tion marks un­nec­es­sar­ily in in­di­rect ques­tions.

An ex­am­ple of an in­di­rect ques­tion of­fered by Fowler was: “He asked whether I would come with him.” Mr Stick­ler said this was a state­ment, not a ques­tion. How­ever, this type of sen­tence of­ten ended with a mis­placed ques­tion mark.

Zoltan Kovacs

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