Try the interrobang

An old-time commercial that advertised a controlled, measured laxative featured a woman asking the rhetorical question about prunes: “Is one enough? Are three too many?”

That question goes right up my alley, but my preference is to think of too few/too many in the context of punctuation marks. Specifically, I believe people are slaves to the notion that “If one is good for you, two are even better.” We can use that analogy when discussing aspirin, Tums, cough syrup, cigarettes and burgers.

In this context, I wonder why people feel the need to sprinkle their prose with profuse punctuation marks. One comment on Facebook included a string of exclamation points strewn across the page, like this: !!!!!!!.

Get the message? If you’re really uncertain about an issue, you punctuate it like this: ??????. And when you feel strongly, try this: !!!!!!!.

Once, I engaged in an online political exchange with someone whose computer certainly didn’t lack punctuation marks. In my reply, I typed two sets of question marks and exclamation pointspunctuation marks about 40 apiece. I included the message that mine was a free-will offering, and I recommended he use them sparingly. You see, I feared his prolix use of that punctuation might deplete his supply.

And decades ago, I read an editorial in Time, Life or Newsweek, about what the writer called an “interrobang.” The prefix, “interro,” refers to the question part; the “bang” emphasizes the exclamation point. The writer stressed that others ought to limit the interrobang to single use. I thought the idea was great.

Now visualize the then-new punctuation mark: Both the “!” and the “?” contain a point (period) at the base. Surely, someone could fashion the upper part, the top of the question mark superimposed over the exclamation mark. Ironically such a mark is possible on a typewriter but not on a computer.

Too bad the movement never caught on. It would be perfect closing punctuation for sentences like, “Can you imagine that?!” or “Why are you breaking into my house?! A single keystroke to convey all that information would be ideal.

Recently, a long-time friend who has since moved out of the U.S., took something off the Internet, forwarded it to all Christendom and introduced the topic with the question, “What next?” But to spare having you count the number of question marks, let me count them for you: 18.

The heading of the email was “Government Opening Free Gas Stations in Poor Neighborhoods.”

It contains a well-written account of the following plan: “The $2 billion-a-year program aims to distribute 40 million gallons of free gasoline each year through 70 new gas stations constructed in major metropolitan areas. The Department of Health and Human Services will be responsible for operating the network, whose first station opened yesterday in Detroit.”

It adds that when people are too impoverished to buy gasoline, they’re unable to drive to doctors’ offices to receive free medical care.

But by this time, people ought to have uncovered the clever spoof.

The entire article is the handiwork of a publication called the Daily Currant. And what is that newspaper best known for? Satire, of course.

Satire is what people write when the ruse is so obvious that any thinking person would discern the tongue-in-cheekedness of the issue. Once, the late columnist James Kirkpatrick wrote a satirical piece on the move to unChristianize cities by removing the word “Saint” from the many cities in the U.S. that contain such a name. Huge chunks of California would need to re-Christen — er — re-name or secularize themselves. Imagine what it would do to places like Saint Petersburg, Saint Louis, San Diego, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.

Well, the downside is that some people, lusting to accept as gospel every email they’ve ever received, will swallow the message they’ve received.

So when I replied to my friend, urging her to look up the word “satire,” she wrote back, explaining that “for some reason” five others had responded to her free-gas piece. I wonder why.

She explained that she had goofed by failing to do a wee bit more research. And the good news, to her, was that it put our families back in touch.

It’s always good to re-establish contact with erstwhile neighbors, but I still wonder about the means she used: inhaling the satire of a well-known publication, The Daily Currant, which calls itself “an English language online satirical newspaper that covers global politics, business, technology, entertainment, science, health and media. It is accessible from over 190 countries worldwide — now including South Sudan. Our mission is to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our progress, and promote intelligence — which presses forward.”

The Daily Currant is much like The Onion, which performs a wonderful function by keeping people alert — through satire.

Meanwhile, what do we do about the millions of social network types who blindly forward such specious pieces of reportage? An acquaintance, a school administrator close to the New Mexico-Mexico border, once forwarded a particularly noxious email from a southern congressman who attempted a revised U.S. Constitution, the crux of which was, “English is what we speak here. Learn English or go back where you came from.”

Them’s fightin’ words, especially in southern New Mexico, where huge numbers of across-the-border kids attend school. Naturally, I chided her for sending off the email, inasmuch as the teaching salaries of herself and most of her colleagues depend on the enrollment of those who should “learn English or go back.”

Well, my acquaintance’s reply was, “Oh, I never read those e-mails; I just forward them.”

I wrote back, “What were you thinking?”

And I splurged, wishing to use two interrobangs, to punctuate and underscore how I really felt. But alas, my computer doesn’t have that capability, so I needed to settle for a separate “!” and a “?”

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