Grammar 101: Periods, Question Marks, Exclamation Points, and the Mysterious Interrobang

Let’s talk for a moment about sentences. You know, these things that I’m writing and you’re reading right now. In English (and, in fact, in most languages), sentences end with a punctuation mark. Take a look at them:
. ? !

We’ll start with the humble period. It doesn’t look like much, does it? A speck, a dot, a little point in space. But that little dot means something big. It means that whatever you’re saying has come to a stopping point-maybe not a permanent stop. You might decide to keep on going like I am right now. But the period tells the reader “you can pause for a second and take a breath.” It signifies that you’ve come to the end of a complete thought. That’s the job of the period. It says, “Thought’s over. Time for the next thought.”

Of course, the period is used for quite a bit more than just ending sentences. In that role, they’re kind of invisible. You probably don’t really notice them consciously when you are reading unless someone like me points them out to you. (Look, there’s another one. And another. They’re everywhere.) We use them for abbreviations, of course, and for decimals. Useful little guys. And easy. Almost every sentence (or sentence fragment) you write should end with a period. When in doubt, use one to end a sentence, and only one. If a sentence ends with an abbreviation, the one period does the job of abbreviating and ending the sentence. So not only is the period a powerful piece of punctuation, it also multitasks.

By the way, the period is called a “full stop” in other parts of the English-speaking world. So if you’re talking to someone from England and he or she uses the term, you’ll know what they mean, period.

Question marks are a bit tougher than the period, or at least can be. The trick with these is to make sure that a question is actually being asked. So how do you tell? Good question.

In English, in general, you can tell that something is a question if the verb (that’s the action being done) comes before the subject (what the sentence is about). In a typical English sentence, the subject comes before the verb. Do (verb) you (subject) understand? See, in this case, the verb showed up before the subject, so the sentence is a question.

The tricky cases are where something feels like a question but really isn’t. Here’s an example:
I wonder if it is raining outside.

For a lot of us, that feels like a question. The person saying, or writing in this case, that sentence doesn’t know if it’s raining. So that’s a question. But it really isn’t a question, so it doesn’t need a question mark. It’s a statement-the person is stating that he or she wonders something. The subject in this case is “I,” which comes before the verb “wonder.” Subject first, so it isn’t a question. This is all that the question mark does. It shows that someone wants to know something and doesn’t have the answer yet.

Exclamation points show excitement. Let me try that again. Exclamation points show excitement! In your mind, you should have read that the second time with more feeling. This is the job of the exclamation point.

Let’s be honest here. Exclamation points are overused. You probably use too many of them, since almost everyone does. They get used all the time in places where they don’t belong. In essence, the exclamation point should be used only when something very important is happening or going to happen. Someone had better be about to die or win the lottery for this guy to show up. If you win a new car, use an exclamation point. If you win a free cheeseburger, even if it’s a really good cheeseburger, use a period. So, “We won!” means you’re very excited. “We won.” means you aren’t. It’s really as simple as that. (I was tempted to use an exclamation point there to emphasize this, but it really isn’t that exciting.)

Incidentally, with both question marks and exclamation points, use one. Just one does the job. Using fifteen exclamation points doesn’t mean you’re more excited. It just means that you can’t control yourself. If you’re really that excited about something, one exclamation point can handle it. And you can’t make a question more of a question by adding more question marks. Got it? Good!

Now we come to the strangest piece of punctuation around: the interrobang. Effectively, this is a question mark and an exclamation point at the same time. It’s used to show both excitement and a question. Think of your favorite science fiction action movie. Think of a scene in which someone yells, “What the *&%# is that?!” That’s the interrobang-a question with a lot of excitement behind it. It’s considered a non-standard punctuation mark, but it’s a pretty useful one. If you could only use one or the other, which would you use in the above case? You have to use a question mark because it’s a question. You have to use an exclamation point because it’s said with a lot of feeling. So use both. Put whichever one you want first-either ?! or !? is okay. This is the beauty of the interrobang being a non-standard mark. It’s one of those rare instances in which the decision you make is the right one no matter what. Just be consistent.

Most computer fonts don’t have an interrobang character. Instead, they use a vertical rectangle or a box that looks like this: . You can use the question mark and exclamation point next to each other, though, on those rare instances that it comes up.

That’s all there is to end punctuation. The period, the question mark, the exclamation point, and the interrobang. I hope it makes sense! Did you follow this whole essay? Did you?!

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