What is the Point?

I am an editor whose clients are excessively fond of exclamation points and question marks. And once I’ve persuaded these enthusiastic authors to use them sparingly, they happily torture me by using multiples of each in their emails to me. One even challenged me to remove the exclamation points from his client recommendation. I did.

The Chicago Manual of Style says exclamation points “should be used sparingly to be effective.” The use of multiple exclamation points at the end of a sentence is distracting and suggests hysteria; exclamation points in close proximity to each other lessen their impact. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that an “exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Now seriously, what is the point of three question marks? Would this sentence be any more of a question if I add more question marks? What about dialogue in which almost every statement ends in a question mark because that’s really how people speak? (A rhetorical question does not require a question mark but I wanted to make my point.) And while I am at it, a period never accompanies an exclamation point or a question mark.

Check out the symbol chart in Microsoft Word’s Wingdings 2 font; you will find an interrobang—an exclamation point and question mark combined in one symbol. It was first proposed in 1962 byMartin K. Speckter, who thought that it would be an effective way of posing rhetorical questions and expressing disbelief in advertising copy.

The editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A, Carol Saller, when asked about the interrobang, replied “And we don’t mention smiley faces either!”

Beverly Ehrman edits fiction and nonfiction, magazine and newspaper articles, book proposals, educational and promotional materials, business documents, and website copy.


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