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Is it ever acceptable to use an exclamation mark following a question mark?

I am proofreading a novel and have been instructed to make no stylistic changes, only errors that impede sense/clarity. The copy-editing phase is complete, so if something is acceptable, I must leave it be.

At one point in the novel, one of the characters responds in an incredulous manner to a piece of information:

"Really?!" was her friend's reaction.

I'm not sure how much leeway to give to 'poetic licence'. The style of the novel is very traditional and the use of punctuation is conventional throughout i.e. not attempting any innovative or idiosyncratic use of language.

I know that most style/usage commentators would frown on the use of "?!' in formal contexts, but is it something a writer of fiction can get away with?

Advice from any experienced proofreaders would be much appreciated.

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You have been given a precise task: To correct grammar, not style.

A combination of question and exclamation mark is not a possible stylistic choice but – from the perspective of normative linguistics – an orthographic mistake. In English, a sentence must be terminated by a single punctuation mark.

So if you are asked to correct grammar, you must necessarily mark up this error. As the author, I would expect you to point out to me that this is not correct in standard English and explain to me, when and by whom it is used regardless, empowering me to consciously make an informed decision to either keep the mistake or correct it.

You do not know what the author wants – correct English or creative use of punctuation – so do not make their decision for them!

  • Er... Really?.. – Zeus Oct 7 at 0:07
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    "In English, a sentence must be terminated by a single punctuation mark." I'm not aware of this rule. Is it documented anywhere? – corsiKa Oct 7 at 0:16
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It's totally fine. It expresses a combination of query and astonishment. There was even an attempt to combine the marks into one, called an interrobang, but it never caught on. Using "?!" is neither innovative nor idiosyncratic.

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    I agree with Lauren, it's totally fine, and changing it would be a stylistic change, and instead of improving clarity, would impede it. Commenting because now I won't write an answer! – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 4 at 13:51
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    There are people who don't use the interrobang‽ – Philipp Oct 4 at 13:59
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    Fun side fact (I know, not the place, but hey): When used, ?! is more common in novels, while !? is more common in graphic novels and comic strips. – Weckar E. Oct 4 at 23:20
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    Does the question mark coming before or after the exclamation mark influence either meaning or grammatical correctness? – Scoots Oct 5 at 10:09
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    @Scoots Grammar no. I'd say the order emphasizes which emotion the speaker is feeling more, astonishment/anger etc. or query. I have never used !? in prose, but I don't work in graphic media, so I can't speak to how it's interpreted there. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 5 at 10:51
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I am proofreading a novel and have been instructed to make no stylistic changes

Much like the Oxford comma, frequency of semi-colons, and gendered pronouns, this is a stylistic minefield. But since you are explicitly told not to make stylistic choices, you should just leave "?!" be.

You are absolutely correct that this is jarring to see in text. If your friend ever solicits style advice from you, you should absolutely bring up this possible issue.

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    “If your friend ever solicits style advice from you, you should absolutely bring up this possible issue.” A further comment on the stylistic point: it’s not by any means necessarily bad — it gets used effectively by plenty of good writers — but it also tends to get over-used by many inexperienced writers, so your friend would do well to think carefully if they really need it. – PLL Oct 5 at 9:00
  • I know that this is shutting the stable door after the horse has emigrated but "absolutely bring up"!? I still find this gratuitous redefinition of what was once a useful word to be jarring. It comes close to using "refute" as a synonym for "deny". I found your first use quite acceptable but couldn't you have used something like "definitely" or "certainly"? – Chris Barry Oct 5 at 16:03
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    "gendered pronouns"? Maybe it's a stylistic minefield in cases when the question is whether to use male pronouns or plural for someone whose gender is unknown. Using genderless pronouns for characters whose gender is well known, is pretty unheard of, even in modern literature. – vsz Oct 6 at 14:43
  • @vsz I meant just so. Or using "she" for a ship, for example. English is weird that way. – Michael W. Oct 7 at 16:26
  • @MichaelW. : "she" for a ship is well-established tradition. But yes, there might be other, less clear cases. – vsz Oct 7 at 20:38
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I agree with others here that if you've been told not to make changes in style, it's likely that the writer's interpretation was that you should leave things like this alone.

But you're the proof reader in this case, so I wanted to give you an "out" in case you hated the sight of it.

If "The style of the novel is very traditional and the use of punctuation is conventional throughout", you could argue that leaving it there would change (or challenge) the style of the rest of the novel.

That's more lawyering than writing, though, and there's plenty of evidence that writers of fiction can use - and have used - punctuation like this.

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