I believe that language is a living system. As we write and speak over time, what is acceptable in grammar, diction, and style needs to change to keep up with the times. The English of Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer is certainly beautiful, but clearly it isn’t the language of today. Time marches on, and language changes; it’s inevitable, and I accept it. However, I do not now, nor will I ever, accept the use of a question mark and exclamation point together (?!) as a proper end punctuation in formal prose.
All writers and editors probably have certain rules they’ve learned that they find hard to abandon—or outright refuse to lose. Because of my years writing for the web, I feel like I’m perhaps a little looser, a little more liberal, in my adherence to hardcore grammar rules—yet there are still some things up with which I will not put. Two different end punctuation marks for a sentence is one such.
This aberration isn’t even a rule I was ever taught, probably because when I was learning grammar in school, no one thought of using such a mutation—at least, not in formal writing. And that’s what’s raised my hackles against the ?! just recently—finding it in use in books published by supposedly respectable publishers and written by well-known authors.
This double punctuation is typically used to represent excitement or disbelief: “She said that?! Are you kidding me?!” I think of this forbidden end stop as the flabbergast—although I hate to give it a name and seem to legitimize it. (Note that an attempt to combine these two marks has been made, called the interrobang, although it hasn’t exactly met with success.) In informal writing—that is, you’re dashing off a quick email or text message or posting something to Facebook—I don’t object to using this thing. In fact, I do it myself.
In formal writing, however, you’ve got to make a choice. Is it a question? Is it an exclamation? Pick one! The use of the double punctuation to convey incredulity or flabbergastedness is simply lazy writing. Particularly in fiction writing, if you can’t make it clear from context how your characters are reacting, then you probably have bigger problems than a weak understanding of grammar.
I can in part forgive the authors who use the flabbergast symbol. Authors might not be expected to know what is acceptable and they have a reasonable expectation that an editor is going to fix any problems before publication in order to avoid embarrassment for both author and publisher.
What to me is inexcusable is that editors and publishers have let this thing appear in print. I recently read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was published in 2009 by Anchor Books, a division of Random House. Dan Brown isn’t exactly a literary giant, although he usually writes a good thriller, and as a bestselling author, his books reach a lot of eyes. This book used the flabbergast symbol early and often—so much so that it diminished my experience of the book. To be sure, the book had plenty of other problems, but I had negative first impressions due to what I considered bad editing from a major publishing house, which then made it that much easier to focus on the novel’s other weak points.
I started this post by saying that language is a living system, which I believe. I understand that our digital technologies, in the hands of so many people who want or need to send messages quickly, are having drastic effects on the way people write. But I also believe that professional editors need to serve as educated gatekeepers to change, which doesn’t seem to be happening.
I could accept changes in spelling—nite for night; thru for through, and so forth—because, frankly, there isn’t much apparent logic in the traditional, etymological derivations that have come down to us. (Although, let me be clear: I’m not advocating such changes.) After all, Shakespeare invented tons of words in his writing that are now in common usage. But I’m unaware of any changes the Bard made to basic punctuation.
A ?! in formal writing is lazy and unnecessary. If you find yourself tempted to use it, well, make sure you’re quoting a Facebook post or text message. Any other use is unacceptable.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins