I recently saw the character '‽' (the interrobang, a mashing of '!' and '?') in an answer's comment and it got me thinking about another character I've seen recently: the sarcmark. In my estimation neither are 'official' punctuation characters; nevertheless the former must be part of Unicode for it to be used in my browser so easily.

At what point is the creation of punctuation appropriate? Is it a matter of popularity, or is necessity the mother of invention?

  • Ugh, the sarcmark is trademarked which means you need to display the trademark symbol every time you use it. – MrHen Mar 30 '11 at 18:41
  • @MrHen: Yikes! In that case I retract my support of the sarcmark. – fbrereto Mar 30 '11 at 18:44
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    The obvious commercialism of the sarcmark is all the clue I need to deem it inappropriate. – tenfour Mar 30 '11 at 18:45
  • @MrHen - what if the trademark symbol was trademarked? – mgb Mar 31 '11 at 5:05

According to Wikipedia, irony punctation have been proposed since the 16th century under the form ⸮, a​ reversed question mark, so the (trademarked) sarcmark is barely a new concept. However, like the more recent interrobang, this usage did not catch up and there is no standard irony mark for common latin script-based languages (irony punctuation exists in other writing systems)

On the other hand, I have seen in different contexts the following marks used for irony in a more or less standard way :

  • [!]
  • [sic], or [sic !] (in French, I don't know if it is the use in english)
  • :-) (and these emoticons being sometimes replaced by in-text graphics or plain-text characters (☺ or some newly encoded unicode 6.0 characters (pdf code chart) )
  • "..." : the "unforgettable" scare quotes (and various “typograhic” 'variations' like ‘these’ and others.) This usage is to my knowledge, the only punctuation sign having escaped the written medium, with the “wonderful” air quotes.
  • in a similar way, I've seen italics used for the same purpose.

About the interrobang, I have little to add to @ncoghlan answer, the excellent Shady Characters blog is publishing a an article series on it. Part 1 is already available.

Edit 1 to add : scare quotes. Edit 2 to add : italics. Edit 3 to add : ref. to the newly published post on the Shady Characters blog.

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    I love the reverse question mark; very nice. Thanks for the introduction. – fbrereto Mar 30 '11 at 16:27
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    Surely the whole point of being ironic is that you don't need to put a large flashing "this was ironic" sign at the end of it? – mgb Mar 30 '11 at 17:29
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    [sic] is used in English to mean that a mistake/typo in a quote was there in the original. – mgb Mar 30 '11 at 17:31
  • @mgb : it also mainly used in French both for that purpose. But sometimes, it is used to ironically insist on the preceding word. – Frédéric Grosshans Mar 30 '11 at 17:35
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    @mgb: The point of punctuation is to make written language easier to understand, is it not? The use of a punctuation character to call out sarcasm or irony would be as effective as those that terminate a sentence or question. While cases certainly exist where it could be omitted (e.g., to leave interpretation open to the reader) I don't think that eliminates the usefulness of such a mark. – fbrereto Mar 30 '11 at 18:54

It's a matter of use. If no one uses it, no matter how popular it is, it doesn't really exist "officially" (for what that term is worth, which is practically nothing). Of course, necessity implies use, so that will also result in "official" punctuation.

Note that the "creation of punctuation" is substantially different from "official punctuation characters"—the creation has technically already happened, since it's been used at least once by the person who came up with it.


Wikipedia has a decent write-up on the meaning and origins of the interrobang: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Interrobang

It's basically just a shorthand for the punctuation at the end of surprised or excited questions like "Really?!". Since it is much easier to just type "?!" instead, "‽" doesn't really see a lot of use in typical writing.

As to when new punctuation is created, it is really a matter of both necessity and popularity. The interrobang is generally less convenient and less comprehensible than the "?!" it aims to replace, so I'd class it as a failed attempt to create new punctuation.

Another example I encountered recently is the use of square brackets instead of normal parentheses to get around the problem of ending a parenthetical comment with a smiley. Neither (Unbalanced :) nor (Also unbalanced :)) look right, so [Better :)] may be a possible replacement. Only time will tell if that catches on.

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    I would be remiss in omitting this link: xkcd.com/541 – Charles Mar 30 '11 at 13:36
  • Heh, yeah, that's where the examples came from. I forget where I first saw the square bracket trick, though (I checked the article where I thought I first saw it, but it wasn't there) – ncoghlan Mar 30 '11 at 14:23
  • Cool, removed that query from my answer since the question has been clarified. – ncoghlan Mar 31 '11 at 5:01

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