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.