!?: interrobang

swiss_typographie's picture

I am currently working on a thesis project based upon the interrobang. The project revolves around re-introducing the interrobang back into our vernacular. I am having issues with finding plentiful information on this subject. If anyone has any information about the interrobang or any tid bits of facts.
Some of the questions that I am trying to answers are fairly simple.

Why has the interrobang been included in only times new roman as part of the international character palette if it is copyrighted, when this is one of the most common typefaces distributed world wide?

How come this quirky piece of punctuation has been over looked by most designers?

How have we forgotten something that is essential to those wonderful rhetorical questions?

So if any one has any ideas or opinions about the interrobang i'd like to here what everyone has to say.

John Hudson's picture

I have, under duress, included the interrobang in a family of fonts (Constantia) because the client requested it. My approach to the design was, I believe, novel, but basically this symbol is utter crap: it was poorly thought out, and it is basically impossible to design an interrobang that does not turn into a dark blot at small sizes. The construction of the symbol is illogical and counter to the organic evolution of written forms.

The interrobang is not essential to rhetorical questions'. It is a grammatically nonsensical mark, of possible interest only to someone who doesn't know the difference between a question and an exclamation. A rhetorical question is still a question, and should be terminated with a question mark. An exclamation is a statement that begins with an interrogative (typically what or how) but does not take the form of a question. The interrobang? How foolish!

Nick Shinn's picture

it hasn't caught on as a chess notation either, where the combination "question - bang" is used to denote a seemingly bad move which turns out to be briliant.

I put an interrobang in the "playful" Fontesque Sans, where it seemed appropriate, but it's the only face I've bothered.

dezcom's picture

Maybe it is used in the back interigation rooms of some less-than-friendly police stations?
"Where did you get these DRUGS?!"
and then the bang of the rubber hose when the answer was not forthcoming :-)

titus n.'s picture

could we see some samples of that strange interpunctuation?

Chris Rugen's picture

I just like the name, to be honest.


grod's picture

I love the interobang. I included what I think is the ideal way to render it in nsf http://www.typophile.com/forums/messages/29/63584.html?1107311012 and there is plenty of information available on the web, check wikipedia for a start.

Mark Simonson's picture

From American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, by Mac McGrew, in the entry about Americana (p. 13):

"The interrobang, the first new puctuation mark to have been introduced in three hundred years and the only one invented by an American, is also featured in Americana. The interrobang, combining exclamation and question marks, was originated in 1962 by Martin K. Speckter, New York advertising executive and printing hobbyist. It was incorporated into all versions of Americana (ATF calling it 'interabang'), but although it got considerable response at the time, it was not included in other type families."

Americana Bold was the last new typeface produced by ATF. There is probably no causal relation between these two facts, however.

Mark Simonson's picture

Ah, I see most of this information and more is available on the Wikipedia, as Noah mentions. Here is a link:


John Hudson's picture

Stephen, can you post some images of Christian's interrobangs? I have not been able to navigate to any image of them via the fontshop links. Amplitude is a pretty wide and open design anyway, so I can see that in such a context it might be easier to produce an interrobang that looks reasonable and doesn't black up. In a typical text face, it is much more difficult. This is what I did, under protest, for Constantia, thereby lowering the standard of an otherwise pretty good typeface.
Constantia interrobang. Ugh!
My main objection to the interrobang isn't its ungainly form, but its grammatical nonsense. It is a 'punctuation mark' for people who don't know how to correctly punctuate. It is entirely telling that the English language persisted for hundreds of years without the need for such a sign, until some advertising executive -- a breed not known for their finely honed grammar -- came up with the idea. Meanwhile, professional copy editors continue to correct misuse of question mark and exclamation mark, because they know the difference between a question and an exclamation.

hrant's picture

Although it is indeed very hard -but not, and never, impossible- to design well, I do feel it's actually gramatically useful. John is just too much of a purist to admit it. :-) Now he's gonna ask me for formal examples, empirical proof, etc. But I won't bother, and not because there isn't convincing evidence of the interrobang's usefulness (there is), but because the last time somebody* tried to convince him of this, offering great examples and arguments, he failed. So no way, Jos

Mark Simonson's picture

It's so rarely used that I suspect the typical reader would come to a full stop
declaring, "What the hell is that?!"

hrant's picture

This solution relieves clotting, but then there's the "order" issue - in fact I would put the question mark first. Or offer both!


John Hudson's picture

I do feel it's actually gramatically useful.

Perhaps you'll think I'm less of a 'purist' if I acknowledge that it is ungrammatically useful? Yes, it is useful to people who do not express themselves grammatically. But then so is :-) , and I don't consider that punctuation.

I'm afraid there is simply no argument to be made for the interrobang being grammatically useful, because grammar distinguishes a question from an exclamation and assigns a specific, individual punctuation mark to each. There is no ambiguous case in which one cannot determine whether something is a question or an exclamation. Most things that are concluded ?! are in fact questions, and should be concluded ?.

So what does ?! represent? What indeed! It might be the raised eyebrows when we question something we can scarcely believe. Or it might be the tone of indignation when we question what seems to us wrong. But neither of these are grammatical. They belong to a level of textual articulation above the grammatical. So, yes, one can say that the interrobang might be ungrammatically useful, or even extra-grammatically useful. But this is an argument against the notion of the interrobang as a new (and proudly American) punctuation mark. It may look like a punctuation mark, it may have hijacked two punctuation marks, but it functions as something other than and beyond a punctuation mark.

The interrobang itself is a symptom of ungrammatical usage of the exclamation mark, especially beloved of ad-men like Martin Speckter, to express loudness. You know: loudness! Since, according to this usage, the exclamation mark can be added to any statement, regardless of whether it is grammatically an exclamation or not, it is assumed that it can be added to what is grammatically a question. Correct use of the exclamation mark is one of the least taught aspects of English grammar, even more poorly understood by most people than the semi-colon and apostrophe.

titus n.'s picture

i would see the interrobang as a try to give the written word some more opportunities we have with the spoken word.
it may be grammtically incorrect, but why shouldn't we try to make our alphabet more precise and broad in expressing emotions and fince nuances of the language visually?
we worked on that idea - quite playful - during an underware workshop. of course our results weren't satisfying and understandable in all their forms, but still it was an interesting approach.


mike_duggan's picture

I dont think the interrobang is in Times New Roman!? is it? It is included in Palatino Linotype

Si_Daniels's picture

Correct its not in TNR, but it is in Palatino Linotype, Frutiger Linotype, Lucida Sans Unicode and Arial Unicode.

I don't plan to add it to TNR, Arial or our UI fonts.

Cheer, Si

steve_p's picture

>>I'm afraid there is simply no argument to be made for the interrobang being grammatically useful, because grammar distinguishes a question from an exclamation and assigns a specific, individual punctuation mark to each.

But if grammar needs the exclamation mark to distinguish a plain statement from an exclaimed statement, why not have a mark to distinguish the plain question from an exclaimed question?

John Hudson's picture

There is no such thing as an 'exclaimed question'. An exclamation is a specific kind of grammatical construction; it is not just any old statement with an exclamation mark stuck at the end. Adding an exclamation mark to a statement does not make it an 'exclaimed statement'. Grammar does not need an exclamation mark to distinguish a 'plain statement from an exclaimed statement'; it uses an exclamation mark to clearly distinguish an exclamation from a question (the most common form of exclamation begins with an interrogative): 'How lovely!' as distinct from 'How lovely?'

swiss_typographie's picture

To michael duggan if you are on a mac you can activate your character palette via: international under your system preferences. Once you do this you can load system typefaces and explore them more in depth as opposed to the glyphs palette. If you load times new roman and search for it under the punctuation you should be able to find it.

swiss_typographie's picture

As our language evolves it seems to be the norm for grammatically incorrect spellings and pronunciation to be included in it. Just recently the grammatically incorrect pronunciation of espresso was inducted into the dictionary [expresso]. On this note if the interrobang was acknowledged by Harper Collins Press or Merriam-Webster again could it then stand as a grammatically correct piece of punctuation?

John Hudson's picture

Trust me, Mike Duggan is not on a Mac :-)

John Hudson's picture

Grammar is the system by which a language operates. The system is extensible, but if something is contrary to what is already established in the system, it is unlikely to catch on. So people have been asking for years 'Why hasn't the interrobang caught on?' And I'm answering: because it is contrary to our system of grammar, which makes a clear distinction between a question and an exclamation. Language is complex, but it is anything but arbitrary: it is the strongest evidence we have of the intensely structured nature of the human brain. Yes, languages develop, but they develop along specific lines. Capricious inventions by advertising executives are ever unlikely to catch on. The really remarkable thing about the interrobang is not that it didn't catch on -- that should have been predictable --, but that all these years later people are still asking why it didn't catch on.

Changes in pronunciation -- which may be based on error or confusion, as in your 'expresso' example -- have nothing to do with grammar. Pronunciation is conventional and essentially arbitrary. Grammar is systematic.

Here is a more precise analogy. Millions of people use semicolons incorrectly; this does not mean that we are developing new usages for the semi-colon. There is one grammatical construction -- one grammatical circumstance -- in which we need a punctuation mark that does what the semicolon does. Any other use of the semicolon is simply pointless: a use of the mark where a different mark is appropriate. The same is true of the interrobang. In every situation where one might be tempted to use an interrobang, there is another mark -- usually a question mark -- that is intended to be used in that circumstance.

steve_p's picture

>>There is no such thing as an 'exclaimed question'. An exclamation is a specific kind of grammatical construction; it is not just any old statement with an exclamation mark stuck at the end.

I can see I'm out of my depth here. This isn't my specialist subject so I was relying on the dictionary definition of 'exclaim' and the comments in FMEU, which do not rule out exclaimed questions, or imply a particular construction and which do imply that an exclamation mark is used to distinguish an exclamation from any other sentence, whether a question or a statement.

Nick Shinn's picture

What the ••••?!

aluminum's picture

"the English language persisted for hundreds of years without the need for such a sign"

Language is malleable. I find the interrobang a nice addition. No matter how vehement you fight it, John, language changes. ;o)

As for your 'millions of people use...' well, that *is* how language changes. Language, in many ways, is very democratic. If enough people decide to use some bit of language in a certain way, then it becomes a valid way to use it.

"Why hasn't the interrobang caught on?"

I see it used all the time in casual language (namely online).

amyp's picture

The interrobang raises many questions (ha!) regarding the visualization of language, especially at a time when we are relying more and more on writing (or typing, that is) to express emotion within conversation (like we're doing right now).

If the keyboard was supplied with an interrobang key, I'd bet more people would use it, especially in conversations like this one.

Sociolinguists would question the idea that grammar is a closed system that doesn't change. In fact, grammar does shift and change, albeit at a much slower pace than pronunciation. For example, if we read Chaucerian English now, it hardly sounds grammatically correct. AAVE (African American Vernacular English), a well-documented dialect of Standard English, has developed its own grammar system that is as systematic as standard English.

The interrobang hasn't been around long enough, nor is it very accessible to most people to necessarily omit the possibility that it could catch on. As language evolves, it omits the parts it doesn't need anymore (so if the semi-colon isn't being used too often, it *could* drop off altogether - purists, attack!!!) and creates new modes of expression.

amy ;)

aluminum's picture

Also interesting to note (from the wikipedia page)is that Firefox recognized all of the interrobangs and rendered them just fine.

mike_duggan's picture

I am not sure about the Mac Version but I am pretty sure that "Times New Roman" never shipped with an Interrobang on Windows. It may be that it is in "Times" on the Mac, which is a different typeface. I am sure Simon Daniels can confirm.


swiss_typographie's picture

I stand corrected about times new roman. Sorry about the confusion. You are correct, it is times and not times new roman.


hrant's picture

Yet another case of some people clinging to the status quo to preserve their standing.

All languages have deficiencies, and it would be nice to address them. English is missing all kinds of important things. Think of how nicely the opening exclamation and question marks work in Spanish*; or how powerful the floating exclamation, question, emphasis and elongation marks are in Armenian. Another thing missing in English (and in fact all languages I know of): a mark for rhetorical questions**, which actually existed in the past, if I'm not mistaken. Rulemongers (and Modernists) often rob us of such nice tools.

* They save a lot of regression.

** Which could actually be right up the interrobang's alley!


John Hudson's picture

But Darrell, I'm not 'fighting against the interrobang'. I don't need to fight against the interrobang. In thirty or so years, this advertising gimmick has gone absolutely nowhere. I'm just explaining why is has gone nowhere and why it will continue to go nowhere. There are fonts that contain it. It is encoded in Unicode. People don't use it. Even in handwritten notes, where it would surely be the easiest thing in the world to employ, people simply do not use it. They use ?! or !?

When this subject came up on the ATypI list last year, one of our Iberian colleagues made the point that, in terms of conveying expression, there is a difference between ?! and !?, and even !?! can be independently interepreted. So even in terms of expressive typography the interrobang is a non-starter: an ambiguous mark that is incapable of conveying the subtleties of expression that misuse of existing punctuation symbols does better.

I think the experimental stuff from the Underware workshop that Titus linked to above -- whole systems for articulating textis -- is much more interesting than the interrobang.

John Hudson's picture

As language evolves, it omits the parts it doesn't need anymore (so if the semi-colon isn't being used too often, it *could* drop off altogether...

George Orwell was convinced in the 1940s that the semicolon was obsolete. I use the semicolon almost every day. This isn't because I'm a 'purist', but because I frequently construct thoughts in a way that calls for that punctuation. I could separate the thought into two completely distinct sentences. I could use a period instead of a semicolon. But that isn't quite the same thing.

The semicolon has fallen out of widespread use simply because it is not taught. People don't know how to use it, so they avoid it. But everyone I've met who does know how to use a semicolon does use it. Not surprisingly, a knowledge of grammar extends the ways in which you can express your ideas. This used to be taught; indeed, grammar and rhetoric are the foundation of classical education. It isn't about rules: it's about tools.

amyp's picture

Does grammar affect our ability to successfully communicate our thoughts? Can we think ?! without having a symbol (or multiple symbols combined) to express it? The Whorfian Hypothesis suggests that language shapes our understanding of the world. If we don't have language to describe an emotion or a state of being, then that emotion or state of being doesn't exist.
whoa...my head hurts...

If the use of the semi-colon (or lack of it) has to do with grammar education (or lack of it), then access to the interrobang (or lack of it) also limits the possibility of its use. Is it possible that the semicolon is no longer being taught simply because it holds less and less of an important function in our language? I'd argue that language and grammar work in a social/politcal-darwinian sense. What sticks around (and who decides to keep it around) remains functionable; what develops is based on the needs (and those that hold the power) of the language.

We can compare the interrobang to the evolution of the :-) or the :-(, the emo-cons. Emo-cons are incorporated into interactive programs in order to address the needs of users by expressing specific emotions in their online conversations. What if...the interrobang worked like an emo-con or an Open Type ligature, where typing ?! would automatically change into an interrobang? How would users react?


aluminum's picture

"They use ?! or !?"

Ah, well, it looks like we're in agreement that there is a need for it, then, and that it is used, just not in the formalized mark that we're talking about here. Time will tell, I guess. Give it another century or two. ;o)

"When this subject came up on the ATypI list last year, one of our Iberian colleagues made the point that, in terms of conveying expression, there is a difference between ?! and !?"

What is the difference?

John Hudson's picture

We can compare the interrobang to the evolution of the :-) or the :-(, the emo-cons.

Indeed. That is exactly what we can compare it to. I believe the interrobang is what we would now call an emoticon (I'm not familiar with the variant emo-con). That is, it is an extra-grammatical sign that provides a cue to emotive articulation of text. This is exactly the point I made earlier when I acknowledged that there is an ungrammatical use for the interrobang. What I object to is the oft-repeated statement that the interrobang is a punctuation mark. It seems to me that this is an assumption based solely on the fact that it looks like a punctuation mark, rather than on any attempt to analyse the use of the mark. Punctuation marks are a class of signs that correspond to the division of utterances into phrases and into classes (statement, question, exclamation, etc.) that are products of syntax and morphology. This division is grammar, and it is something that happens at a much lower level of language than emotive articulation. Some punctuation marks, especially the question mark, are particularly useful because of our habit of abbreviation, which can make syntactical constructions ambiguous. So, for example, if someone tells us 'Dinner will be ready soon' we might abbreviate the question 'How soon will dinner be ready?' to simply 'How soon?' In this case, the syntax of the utterance 'How soon' doesn't clearly indicate that this is a question, so the punctuation mark which performs only a supporting role to the full construction 'How soon will dinner be ready' becomes essential to understanding. This is the sort of thing that punctuation marks do. They do not signal emotional articulation. They belong to a different class of signs from :-) and :-( etc.. So I maintain that the interrobang is not a punctuation mark and has no grammatical function, because its purpose is to articulate something extra-grammatical, e.g. questioning suprise or disbelief.

I think it is very telling that of all the many writing systems in the world, none have developed a primary system of emotive articulation, while almost all have developed or adopted some level of punctuation (beginning with a space or marker to separate words or, in the case of written languages like Thai and Burmese, phrases). But there are many secondary systems of emotive articulation, which are not grammatical but are used by specific communities as a layer on top of grammar. The point about specific communities is very important in this regard because, while all symbols are conventional, punctuation marks correspond to describable aspects of the structure of language, while things like emoticons correspond to extra-linguistic, social conventions and are often identifiers of specific groups or 'tribes'. The systems of secondary articulation of writing employed by Japanese schoolgirls are only partly intuitively understandable by readers outside that community. The system of emoticons employed on Typophile and many other forums, along with their plain text equivalents, are understood by a much larger and more international community, but this does not make them primary signs of any written language. They remain a level above grammar. They are also much more subject to fashion than punctuation, since they are primarily used in ephemeral utterances, while more formal written language is intended to communicate not only among a members of a particular community at a particular time, but between writers and readers from different communities living hundreds of years apart from each other. Secondary systems seldom last that long, while punctuation tends to evolve only very slowly and, once a language has developed a consistent system that works, it is more likely to solidify than to change.

An interesting case of secondary articulation is the non-vowel markings of the Hebrew Bible. Some of these secondary marks -- accent or cantillation marks -- have continued to be understood, or at least systematically interpreted within specific communities, for many centuries because of their musical significance. But there are some secondary marks in ancient Hebrew manuscripts, the puncta extraordinaria for instance, whose original meaning is lost and which we can only guess at. Hundreds of years from now, scholars might look at the handwritten notes of Japanese schoolgirls from the early years of the 21st century and ponder what the little hearts and cat faces meant to that community. The same researchers will be able to determine what the punctuation marks in the documents mean by analysing the structures of the language and how these marks relate to them. This is the difference between primary (grammatical) and secondary (extra-grammatical) notation of language: the former is tied to the structures of language, while the latter applied like a layer and can be easily disassociated.

So what is the interrobang? It looks like a primary mark, because it references the form of two primary marks. But one of those two marks, the exclamation mark, is itself used by many people as an emotive articulation sign! (as I just did there, for emphasis, even though grammatically that was not an exclamation). Indeed, this secondary use of the exclamation mark is much more common today than its primary use as a punctuation mark properly understood. So the interrobang hijacks this secondary, emotive articulating use of the exclamation mark and marries it to the question mark, which is still primarily a punctuation mark and only seldom used in a secondary way (usually in isolation, as a kind of abbreviation). So it is neither one thing nor the other, but relies for what functionality it does have on a secondary use of the exclamation mark, and there seems to be general agreement throughout this thread that it is used to express something about the way a question is asked, which indicates to me that it is a kind of emoticon. Typically for a secondary mark, it has been subject to fashion. It was briefly in fashion in the 1970s, and one could pay to have one's typewriter modified to include it. It may come back into fashion. But it will never be a punctuation mark because there is no grammatical construct with which it is associated, which is the defining characteristic of all other punctuation marks. It tells us something extra-grammatical about an utterance, but even this is doesn't seem to do very clearly or well, especially if you care about a distinction between ?! and !? :-)

Stephen Coles's picture

it is basically impossible to design an interrobang that does not turn into a dark blot at small sizes. This is not always true. Christian Schwartz has included a version that, while fairly wide for punctuation, works as well as its individual parts at all sizes. See it in Amplitude and Fritz.

Stephen Coles's picture

Here ye go. Saves your copy/paste time:

fritz interrobang amplitude interrobang

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