10

A dialogue of mine contains the following sentence:

"You fired all three of them?!"

Trouble is, I'm not sure I've ever seen a novel that used a question mark and an exclamation point together - it's something I normally see in comic strips and the like. Is using the two punctuation marks together only acceptable in certain forms of writing, or is it safe to use it in a novel without it appearing childish and/or obnoxious?

Using just the question mark doesn't really create the effect I'm aiming for.

  • 2
    obnoxious, but that's just my subjective reaction – sesquipedalias Aug 16 at 23:17
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    I'm almost certain I've seen this in professionally-published fiction. – Monica Cellio Aug 16 at 23:32
  • @MonicaCellio Do you remember where? – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Aug 17 at 1:39
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    @NofP I feel like she doesn't sound shocked and furious enough if I just use a question mark. She's cutting into a conversation - there isn't enough context to be helpful. But I may need to edit that. – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Aug 17 at 18:51
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    Doing it once? Why not? It's not the same as doing it once on every page... – Gábor Aug 18 at 9:18
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I just ran a search on all of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files for the '?!' mark. Why this series in particular?

  1. It's modern
  2. Stylistically, I expected to find '?!' there.
  3. I had it on my computer, so I could Ctrl+f

Here are the results: in 17 books (15 novels + 2 short stories collections) the punctuation mark '?!' appears 11 times.

What does it mean?

Even in modern literature that doesn't take itself too seriously, '?!' is extremely rare. You are right to be asking the question. I suppose other, more verbose methods are used to convey the same effect in other literature. Nonetheless, sometimes '?!' is the most effective tool and the right tool to be used.

Example:

“Fuck!” Thomas snarled. I looked up to see him stagger, holding on to the boat’s wheel with his right hand, his face twisted in pain. He’d taken a bullet in his left arm, just above the elbow, and he held it clenched in tight against his body, teeth bared. Slightly too pale blood trickled down his elbow and dribbled to the deck. “Plan B, Harry! Where the hell is plan B?!” (Jim Butcher, Cold Days, chapter 18)

Like you say, no other punctuation mark would give quite the same effect, and the scene is tense and fast-paced, so one wouldn't want to get more verbose instead.

11

The combination "?!" has been in common usage enough that the interrobang (‽) was suggested as a punctuation mark to replace the need to use two symbols.

Note that the interrobang (and thus the intent to use "?!") would normally not be used in formal writing, but was used in the ruling of a 2012 US court case, Robert F. Booth Trust v. Crowley

In any event, I know I've seen ?! in written fiction aside from comics, although it tends to be more recent.

  • 3
    I use ‽ all the time, personally, because it fills a niche and people immediately understand what it means. Who cares if it's not the norm? Make it a new norm. (that said, no one else seems to be picking up on it, probably because it's not on a standard keyboard...) – Hearth Aug 17 at 17:48

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