What!? or What?!

By | Tuesday, December 08, 2020 Leave a Comment
So the question came up recently, when writing dialogue, which is correct: using a question mark and then an exclamation mark, or using an exclamation mark and then a question mark?

Well, the snarky answer is neither; you should use an interrobang. That's what the accompanying graphic here is. It's literally the two independent marks superimposed on each other specifically to convey both a question and an exclamation. "What‽"

Except that it's pretty hard to read in a lot of situations and not very common, so it would probably confuse more readers than not.

The next answer is question mark/exclamation mark. According to Nate Piekos, that is what Marvel insists on. My guess is that that's because it tends to read more distinctly. A ?! is very much two different, distinct punctuation marks, but !? could be read as a capital P if the kerning is too tight or the ink bleeds a bit or something.

Personally, though, I think printing standards have improved sufficiently that, since we no longer have to worry about the word FLICK any more, why should !? be a concern?

My suggestion -- and what I always do in my writing -- is use the both, but their specific usage is dependent on the context or situation. Namely, whichever mark comes first is the primary mark and highlights the emphasis of the dialogue. Are we talking about an question that's posed with a lot of energy or excitement, or is it more of an exclamation that happens to be phrased as a question? So, for example...

What!? Why did you do that?!

Here, the speaker isn't actually asking someone to repeat themselves by asking "What?" They're expressing surprise and alarm, using a questioning phrase. Hence, it uses !?

By contrast, "Why did you do that" is an actual question. It continues to have the excitement and alarm of the exclamation, but an answer or response is expected. Thus ?!

To my thinking, you can add one more mark to either if you really want to hammer the point home, but it should always be a duplicate of the first mark. Using the same example...

What!?! Why did you do that?!?

More than three marks is unecessary, however.

A lot of this boils down to context and, indeed, different writers might approach the same phrase a little differently. Maybe they do think "What?" is a legitimate question here, and there's an expected response either to confirm or repeat the questioned statement. But if that is the case, I -- as the reader -- continue following the guidelines above and assume that "What?!" demands an answer whereas "What!?" does not. This adds further clarification to the reader that an interrobang does not. And isn't that usually the point -- to give as much clarity to the reader as possible?
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