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Ending a line of dialogue with "?!": Allowed or obnoxious?

5

A dialogue of mine contains the following sentence:

"You fired all three of them?!"

Trouble is, I'm not sure I've ever seen a novel that used a question mark and an exclamation point together - it's something I normally see in comic strips and the like. Is using the two punctuation marks together only acceptable in certain forms of writing, or is it safe to use it in a novel without it appearing childish and/or obnoxious?

Using just the question mark doesn't really create the effect I'm aiming for.

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1 comment

Both allowed and obnoxious. Allowed because it is sufficiently supported by convention and usage. Obnoxious because it should be unnecessary in well written prose. Lots of things are both allowed and obnoxious. Mark Baker about 1 month ago


5 answers

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It's acceptable, but should be reserved for rare occasions where it's absolutely necessary to keep the flow of the scene going. Overuse of this type of punctutation would indeed make your writing look childish. As other answers have already outlined it's something that's becoming more common, but is still used very rarely and only in certain kinds of writing. If you are writing something that takes itself very seriously you should probably avoid it wherever possible and try to come up with something else. It's perfectly fine to use it rarely in caricatural writing, but for something that tries to be serious you are better off trying to find a different way of expressing what your characters feel. For example in your example you could instead try to rephrase it to something like "I can't believe this! How could you fire all three of them? Are you out of your mind?" - by starting with a sentence with an exclamation mark you show that the character is currently screaming, which makes it easier for the reader to know that the following questions are most likely not asked in a soothing low voice.

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3

The combination "?!" has been in common usage enough that the interrobang (‽) was suggested as a punctuation mark to replace the need to use two symbols.

Note that the interrobang (and thus the intent to use "?!") would normally not be used in formal writing, but was used in the ruling of a 2012 US court case, Robert F. Booth Trust v. Crowley

In any event, I know I've seen ?! in written fiction aside from comics, although it tends to be more recent.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47375. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Of course it's allowed, but only if you punctuate it correctly! The mark you want to use is known as an interrobang.

Say what‽

Yes that's right, there are more punctuation marks available than they teach you in grade school.

Shady Characters has a great pair of blog posts on the history and usage of the interrobang. Thankfully with its place in the Unicode spec secure and many fonts doing a better job of covering wider ranges of glyphs in recent years it has become much more widely available than it was in centuries past.

Use it with discretion. It's easy to over use, but sometimes it's just the right tool for the job.

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3 comments

The downside of this, of course, is that it's unfamiliar to quite a number of people, so consider your audience carefully. ArtOfCode 2 months ago

@ArtOfCode I get it. And yes sometimes that will make people do a double take, so if your goal is to not be distracting this might not be for you. But sometimes that's an upside though! And in spite of being unfamiliar I have yet to run across anybody that couldn't figure out what it meant in context. Mostly I needed something to try out this site / platform, and most of the questions on here are out of my league. This one was irresistible. Caleb about 2 months ago

Welcome @Caleb. If you of a more technical bent, we do have questions on technical writing, API documentation, (code) examples, and more. Also scientific and academic writing. Monica Cellio about 2 months ago


2

I just ran a search on all of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files for the '?!' mark. Why this series in particular?

  1. It's modern
  2. Stylistically, I expected to find '?!' there.
  3. I had it on my computer, so I could Ctrl+f

Here are the results: in 17 books (15 novels + 2 short stories collections) the punctuation mark '?!' appears 11 times.

What does it mean?

Even in modern literature that doesn't take itself too seriously, '?!' is extremely rare. You are right to be asking the question. I suppose other, more verbose methods are used to convey the same effect in other literature. Nonetheless, sometimes '?!' is the most effective tool and the right tool to be used.

Example:

“Fuck!” Thomas snarled. I looked up to see him stagger, holding on to the boat’s wheel with his right hand, his face twisted in pain. He’d taken a bullet in his left arm, just above the elbow, and he held it clenched in tight against his body, teeth bared. Slightly too pale blood trickled down his elbow and dribbled to the deck. “Plan B, Harry! Where the hell is plan B?!” (Jim Butcher, Cold Days, chapter 18)

Like you say, no other punctuation mark would give quite the same effect, and the scene is tense and fast-paced, so one wouldn't want to get more verbose instead.

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1

I don't have a problem with '?!', I think people understand it, so it is fair game.

I would have a problem with the interrobang ('‽'). If I ran across that in a book it would drop me out of my reading reverie just as much as reading 'hxywsxv', in other words I wouldn't have any clue what it meant, without close analysis to realize Oh, it's a question mark with an exclamation point. That's a dumb move.

I feel the same about technical grammar vs 'spoken grammar', I'd rather write sentences the way the majority of readers speak. "What for?" instead of "To what end?". Although proper grammar might be a characteristic of a character that takes refuge in their academia.

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Agreed. Even if the "interobang" exists (it's a new one on me), familiarity is the core value of communication. Use the most familiar word that does the job. Use the most familiar punctuation that does the job. Personally, if I saw '‽' in a book I would take it for a printing error. Mark Baker about 1 month ago