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Craig Wruck: I have a question: Is it time to legalize the interrobang?

Often ignored, the exclamation question has struggled for decades to earn its own punctuation mark.

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Post Bulletin columnist Craig Wruck.
Post Bulletin file photo
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“There’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there are a lot of inquisitive imbeciles,” reads the framed poster on the wall of the accountant’s office. Funny, right? I’m not so sure. My experience is that questions can be irrelevant, unnecessary, incorrect, sometimes stupid, or maybe even dangerous.

"I have a question” ought to be an invitation to explore new ideas and to learn, but too often these days the point of the question is to slow the conversation, throw it off track, or even steer it into the ditch. If the question is preceded by, “Just to play devil’s advocate…,” watch out! The questioner probably means “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to argue about it, so I’m going to let the devil do that for me.”

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A good question is a marvel of efficiency, both focused and relevant to the subject at hand, moving the conversation along and broadening the topic all at once. A closed ended question (“Do you want me to call her today?”) gets specific information and helps gauge the listener’s understanding. The opposite, an open-ended question (“How did you learn about interrobang?”), encourages discussion and invites details.

Too often these days, statements masquerade questions. For example, “We should get together for beers?” is really just a declarative statement. Hanging a question mark on the end doesn’t transform it into question. But if I ignore this impostor question, I’m in danger of being rude or obtuse – not to mention missing out on an opportunity for a few beers. The younger generation seems especially fond of impostor questions, which are easier to spot in written form but can be especially difficult when it’s a verbal conversation and your only clue is the uplifted voice at the end.

Much as I enjoy blaming the younger generation, the art of asking questions has been deteriorating for a long time. Shakespeare caused a lot of trouble with rhetorical questions (“What’s in a name?”), those pesky inquiries where an answer isn’t really expected. Rhetorical questions can be especially effective weapons. “Can’t you do anything right?” slyly avoids directly questioning your abilities while firmly implying incompetence. There’s an entire musical number in Monty Python’s Life of Brian devoted to the negative rhetorical question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Brilliant. No criticism of the Romans. I’m just asking questions.

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I think my favorite is the exclamation question. (“Are you out of your mind?”) which does double duty as both an inquiry and an exclamation of surprise or disbelief, usually asked simply for emphasis, often whimsical and sometimes nonsensical. Does anyone really wonder, “Is the pope Catholic?”

Often ignored, the exclamation question has struggled for decades to earn its own punctuation mark, the interrobang, which looks like a standard question mark with an exclamation point superimposed over it. The interrobang came close to achieving mainstream acceptance for a few years, in the 1960s, when you could actually buy a typewriter with a special key for the interrobang. Even today, many digital fonts include the interrobang, although you won’t find it on your keyboard. (For the tech curious, [U+203D] is the Unicode for the interrobang and word processing programs can insert it but, alas, most readers will not be able to view it.)

With election season bearing down on us, I’ve been thinking lately about questions I might ask candidates. If I get the chance, I quiz them about their stands on full legalization of the interrobang. I expect the answer will be, “Are you kidding [U+203D]”

Craig Wruck describes himself as a relentless optimist. He is a retired college administrator who recently relocated to Rochester to spend more time growing up with his grandson. Send comments on columns to Jeff Pieters, jpieters@postbulletin.com.

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