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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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4 Answers 4

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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!

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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, 2019 at 0:16
  • It is perfectly correct - it's a recognised punctuation mark called the 'interrobang' as pointed out in the answer below. There's a combination mark that can be used qwerty.dev/interrobang - and it's included in the unicode character list - codetable.net/name/interrobang Mar 5, 2022 at 9:42
  • There is a fundamental misunderstanding driving a needless debate here, @corsiKa, that I think both you and Careful Bobbit are falling prey to. Some languages like Chinese, are proscriptive, and they have these rules ordained from some official authority. English, however, is a descriptive language, which is not defined by the dictionaries and lexical references we produce; it is defined by we who create it. Careful Bobbit's answer is correct: Allow the author to make an informed decision, but the decision must be the author's. Did E. E. Cummings agree with any editor ever? I think not.
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 13, 2022 at 13:36
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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
    Oct 4, 2019 at 13:51
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    There are people who don't use the interrobang‽
    – Philipp
    Oct 4, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 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. Oct 5, 2019 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, 2019 at 9:00
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    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"? Oct 5, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 at 16:26
  • @MichaelW. : "she" for a ship is well-established tradition. But yes, there might be other, less clear cases.
    – vsz
    Oct 7, 2019 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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