Friday, April 25, 2014

Whither Goest The Interrobang‽

The cool thing about being a writer is that you're often given freedom to do unusual things or care about weird subjects. For example, when I go to a coffee shop, the logo on the cup and on the sleeve have to both line up with the drinking hole in the plastic lid.

It also means I have an unnatural interest in language and punctuation that borders on the freakish. By now, my family and friends are used to me kvetching about the Oxford comma, or yelling at TV newscasters, "It's 'A historic,' dammit! 'A historic,' not 'an!' You're being 'an moron!'"

I cringe whenever someone uses certain words incorrectly, kick and scream when the meaning of other words begins to evolve, or smile and say "English is an ever-changing tapestry" when I purposely violate long-held rules just to stick it to grammar sticklers.

Like this: It is actually perfectly acceptable to end your sentences with a preposition. But when I tell people this, they swear on the grave of their 7th grade English teacher that this is utter nonsense up with which they shall not put!

Sometimes people will share new (or previously undiscovered) words, grammar rules, and punctuation marks. A couple years ago, I was told about the existence of the interrobang, a punctuation mark that combines a question mark (?) and an exclamation point (!).

It looks like this: ‽

It's supposed to replace the ?! combination people use in angry questions, like "Who ate all my Cap'n Crunch?!" It could have been a very useful symbol for those people who hate the ?! combo, and believe we shouldn't double punctuate. They feel we should just ask the question and let the language show that it's an angry one.

Who appointed them the Arbiters of Punctuation‽

(See how that works?)

I was recently reading Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks —because because that's what writer nerds do — which is where I learned of the interrobang's origins.

It was created in 1962 by ad agency owner Martin Speckter, gained some media attention, and was added to the Remington Rand typewriter line in 1968. It was even included in a new font called Americana around that same time. You can still find it on your Mac or Windows computer today, if you know where to look.

As I was writing the first draft of this column on my typewriter — because that's what writer nerds do — I could easily create it by first hitting the "interro" (?), backspacing, and then follow it up with the "bang" (!).

The problem is, we Americans are set in our ways, and it takes a lot to get us to change how we do things, especially if it means adding new ideas and habits.

But that's not to say we didn't give it the old college try. Many people certainly tried to make a go of it. Even now, it's seeing a mild resurgence among a new generation of writers. It just never quite caught on, after being labeled a fad by many language snobs who never end their sentences with prepositions ever, no matter how wrong they are. (Not that I'm bitter.)

But what's really insulting to the interrobang enthusiasts is how readily people have adopted emojis, the small cartoonish images on your smartphone used to represent emotions in people's otherwise gibberish texts.

"U mad bro?"

Emojis are little cutesy, completely useless graphics of smiley faces, frowny faces, and every variation of human emotion. Whatever happened to the good old days of typing ;-) for a winky face? Or a :-D to show that something was particularly hysterical? (If you don't know what those are, turn your head 90 degrees to the left. Or turn the paper 90 degrees to the right. Whatever, I'm not picky.)

I know emoji are the natural evolution of the text-based emoticons, but I was more than a little surprised ( =8-o ) that they caught on so quickly. Meanwhile, the interrobang is hidden away in our computers and needs a hunting party and three bloodhounds just to track it down.

While I certainly have mellowed out over the years, and no longer rant over the egregious "I seen" or a misused apostrophe (it's not DVD's, people! No apostrophes in plural words), I want to scream about grown adults who punctuate their text messages with tiny cartoon kittycats.

The interrobang, on the other hand, has a proud, if obscure, 52 year tradition. It signaled an important new change in how we communicate with each other, while emoji are wastes of electronic space that make our phones die a little inside.

We need to re-embrace the interrobang to convey proper emotions for the truly important questions of our day, like, seriously, who ate my freaking Cap'n Crunch‽

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