Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Ending the Debate Over Ending Punctuation


A few weeks ago, my writing group called into question the use of  !? to end some dialogue in my work in progress. I staunchly defended my choice but failed to change their minds. Then—with uncanny timing—Facebook friend Gail Johnson posted about Benjamin Dryer’s recently released book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. The title intrigued me—grammar nerd that I am—but the reviews are what convinced me to make the purchase. It’s not often a writing instruction book garners descriptions such as “utterly delightful,” “smart and funny,” and “brilliant, pithy.”
Also described as a "mind-blower" and
a "frankly perfect book."
A few pages in, I realized the book is deserving of its accolades. It truly is a book that “makes you smile and makes you smarter at the same time.” But what amazed me is that on page 65, rule #64 provides the answer to whether !? should ever be used. According to Dreyer ... it shouldn’t. He considers the use of it so completely wrong as not to be worth discussing. What!?

Far be it from me to challenge the wisdom of the copy chief of Random House (which Dreyer happens to be), but I contend there are times when a single mark of punctuation simply won’t suffice.  Take, for instance, these lines from my WIP. 

“That’s it, JJ,” Barb said, pointing. “My truck.”
“That?!”

My intention was to convey JJ’s simultaneous need for confirmation and amazement that Barb would be driving a one-ton sweeper truck. Does “That?” Or “That!” adequately express this mixture? 

I rest my case.

I suppose JJ’s emotional state could be described with words.

“That?” JJ hiked his eyebrows high on his forehead, and his eyeballs bulged from their sockets. 

But why go to all that trouble when the same effect can be achieved by two simple taps? Well, three. You also have to tap the shift key.

I agree with most of what Dreyer has to say in his book. (I’m sure he’ll be relieved to know this.) I agree the use of  double exclamation marks or double question marks is superfluous. Do we need to stress that a question is being asked or a character is expressing intensity of emotion? No! And Dreyer’s mandate that “periods and commas … are always (italics mine) set inside [terminal quotation marks]” makes me smile. Broadly and smugly. 

Dreyer does offer me hope in my struggle to gain approval for !? with the following revelation: “The dictionary takes its cue from use.”  If writers (as in everyone who writes) want “rest room” to become “restroom,” all they have to do is persist in using the latter. If we want to start sentences with “And” or “But,” now we can because we’ve insisted on doing it for so long. It makes sense that punctuation should follow this same process of acceptance—within reason. “Ladie’s Restroom” should never be legitimized no matter how many times it appears on the doors of ladies’ restrooms.

If you feel as strongly as I do that sometimes ?! is not only warranted but necessary, please join with me in continuing to use it. But because this path to acceptance could be a long one, I’m also asking you to do one more thing to expedite the matter. In the comments on this blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter, simply respond with ?! Feel free to respond as many times as you like, as that will increase its frequency of use.

PS While we're advocating for this mark of punctuation, we also need to come up with a name for it. Any suggestions?





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