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We've all wanted to express certain questions, rhetorical or not, with annoyance, excitement, surprise, frustration and so on. What better way than with both a question mark (?) and an exclamation mark (!), right?

I've seen two ways of punctuating such questions:

Where is this place?!

Who do you think you are!?

(Things like ?!?, !?!, ?????!!!!!, ??!?!!?!?!!??, etc are irrelevant here.)

Which is the proper way to order the two symbols? Or does each of the above two have a distinct and grammatically correct meaning?

Or is the interrobang (‽) the clear winner here? ;)

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There's not a rule, since the exclamantion mark and question mark combination is not even allowed in formal English. – b.roth Aug 12 '10 at 21:35
Incidentally, !, !!, ?, ??, ?! and !? have somewhat standardized meanings when used in the context of discussing chess moves. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuation_(chess) for details. – Eric Lippert May 13 '11 at 17:53

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I think if you ask the experts who would claim that they know what the “correct” way to punctuate something is, they would tell you that a sentence may only have one terminal punctuation mark—that is to say, neither “?!” nor “!?” is correct.

So, no matter what order you use, you’ll never please those people. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 3742 examples of “?!” and 1197 examples of “!?”. Clearly both orderings enjoy substantial usage, although it does appear that “?!” enjoys a majority of usage, probably because most sentences that get the double punctuation treatment are syntactically questions that have an exclamation point added for emphasis.

Edit: I checked in the British National Corpus, and it has 224 instances of “?!” and 121 instances of “!?”.

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Pfft, "Contemporary American English". Where's your traditional British English now!? – Noldorin Aug 12 '10 at 21:38
@Noldorin, as far as I know, there is no convenient and freely searchable corpus of British English, contemporary or otherwise (which I think in the sense of contemporary used, would be contrasted with historical rather than traditional). – nohat Aug 12 '10 at 21:44
That the order of ‘?!’ occurs about twice as often as the opposite makes sense. The sentence is after all fundamentally a question. The exclamation modifies the sentence less than the interrogative does, and so feels more natural to be secondary. I suppose a sentence could exist which is more exclamation and the inquisitive aspect is secondary, in which case reversing the punctuations would make sense—if I can managed to think of one I’ll post it. – Synetech Mar 1 '11 at 21:28
@Synetechinc. Perhaps any emphatic rhetorical question? – sarah Dec 8 '11 at 7:47

I guess it depends on what you want to say. In my own usage, '?!' would generally be more frequent, expressing astonishment at a particular question, kind of "WTF?!": You ask a question and then use the exclamation mark to stress its unusuality.

On the other hand, '!?' seems much rarer, both in my own usage and what I have observed. I would say it meant something extraordinary (that you stress with the '!') but also insecurity (hence it being followed by the '?') about your assessment of it being extraordinary.

So, they do express different meanings, but '?!' would be a more common one than '!?'.

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+1 for expressing that they're used differently. I too use "?!" for questions, and more rarely "!?" for exclamations, and this usage seems to be common in what I read. So the answer is - if you want to express this sort of confusion with this sort of punctuation - put the punctuation mark the sentence would otherwise have first, then the other type after it :) – psmears Jan 19 '11 at 13:33

Use the interrobang (quesclamation mark)

(I largely kid, of course. This punctuation mark is hardly in common use - though it's perhaps acceptable in various forms of media/advertising.)

In all seriousness, it is strictly only legal to use a single punctuation mark at the end of a sentence/phrase.

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I'd gladly use it, but it's not on my keyboard anywhere, and I'm technologically illiterate. :) – kitukwfyer Aug 12 '10 at 21:34
That’s why there’s copy and paste. – nohat Aug 12 '10 at 21:35
@kitukwfyer: You can get it via a character map in a text editor, an alt keyboard code, or indeed copy & paste. – Noldorin Aug 12 '10 at 21:39
@Nohat: Indeed, but that can be a pain to do, at least on my computer. If the situation arose, I'd probably just type "?!" and use find and replace when I was done...For anything that's not official, it's hardly worth the effort, IMO...Also, I type too slowly. :) – kitukwfyer Aug 12 '10 at 21:40
Word has auto-replace rules so that you can have '‽' appear whenever you type '?!'. :) – Noldorin Aug 12 '10 at 21:41

I like ?! and think interrobang is ugly, but that's just my personal aesthetic. As others have said, there doesn't seem to be a strict rule. Pick the one you like.

We could assume the ordering conveys information, i.e. whichever one comes first is the dominate one. So ?! would be a question asked excitedly, and !? would be an exclaimed question. But that's just us making things up. Though who knows? Maybe it'll catch on. That's my proposal for the rule.

I'm sure specific style guides and domain-specific grammars (such as chess notation, as Wikipedia notes) have more explicit meanings as well. You could probably find one to justify whatever you want.

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Yeah, the interrobang can look a bit ugly in my view too, but oh well. – Noldorin Aug 12 '10 at 21:45

Putting both marks together does, to quote the Oxford Style Manual, "strike a note of almost hysteria" in serious writing.

To know which mark to use, you need to decide whether you expect an answer or not.

"What are you doing?" = you don't know what the person is doing.

"What are you doing!" = you do know what the person is doing (and probably don't like it).

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I know you say they are irrelevant, but I would never use "?!" or "!?" but always use "?!?" or "!?!" - except in formal writing where I would use neither. I would consider the first punctuation mark to be the most important.

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The standard way of writing that combination would be “?!” (question mark followed by exclamation point), since you are first and foremost asking a question.

It is this question in which you wish to accentuate, to show surprise, anger, disbelief, etc.

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From a more functional standpoint:

If the context is right , I will follow Occam's razor and achieve the same result but with economy.

For example, in the context of "Who do you think you are!", a single exclamation mark is not only safe and correct, but still as punchy.

I would agree that ?! isn't standard English, and I'd see it as frivolous in formal writing anyway.

Remember not to overuse exclamation marks, too.

Edit: If you still feel that adding an exclamation point for a question doesn't seem right, I feel that this work best for one-word sentences like "What!" and etc.

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The question itself is exclaimed, so it must be ? first, then punctuated ! to augment the original question.

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It is possible that this practice originated in the annotation of chess games, where the two punctuation marks (! and ?) are used to identify exceptional and questionable moves respectively. In that context, !? identifies a move that looks exceptional, but has hidden flaws, and ?! identifies a move that appears questionable but contains hidden virtues.

When only one instance each of the two punctuation marks is used, I believe this inference might be picked up by most astute readers when use of two punctuation marks was at all warranted.

With the above stated, I must now ask for the reason why you are doing this? (And asking this question.) Over use of punctuation marks has the opposite of the intuitive effect, becoming mere noise that drowns out the signal contained by the actual written text. While rules in English are meant to be broken, breaking them without a clear intent in mind is simple mindlessness.

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You're right - I asked this pretty much out of mindless curiosity :) – BoltClock Aug 3 '13 at 0:55

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