Spice up your writing—and horrify your readers

Today, we are going to talk about punctuation. But not just any punctuation.

We aren’t going to talk about the little “helpers” we learned about in grade school. Commas, periods, question marks, apostrophes, slashes (the solidus) and exclamation points fall into this category. As do the ones most still haven’t quite mastered such as the colon, the semicolon (an argument waiting to happen) and the dashes (em, en and hyphen).

Today, we will discuss the ones that have rocked the literary world in a way. . .

Stop. What? Rocked the literary world?

Well, okay. Maybe not rocked it, but…

Do you mean marks that have been largely ignored, if not made up entirely?

I suppose, but…

But what?

Well, they could have rocked the literary world.

But they didn’t.

They rocked my literary world.

That’s because you are, how shall I say… easily rocked. In any event, let’s not overstate things, okay?

All right.

As I was saying, today we are going to talk about punctuation that has been largely ignored, punctuation that was well-intentioned but, for whatever reasons, just didn’t catch on.


These marks are not easily reproduced on the keyboard. Research shows
language historians sometimes disagree about what they looked like or how
they were used. And few people really care much about them. But, I do.

So, read on, even if it’s only for fun.

Here are the two biggies (if there is such a thing).

Interrobang — An interrobang is a single mark that looks like a question mark superimposed over an exclamation mark. You see this more often than you think but because it is hard to reproduce on the keyboard, it is often seen as a workaround version that is simply this: ?!

Ironieteken — Simply put, this is a zigzag exclamation point that is used to indicate irony. The world’s full of apathy, but I don’t care! (Once again, use your imagination.) Research shows that people who care about these things say this is the mark that really could find a home in the English language if it were represented by a reputable PR firm.

Are there others? Quite a few, actually. Admittedly, there are those who say some of these bring along little supporting evidence that they existed at all but mine is not to judge.

Pillow: To ancient Greeks, this indicated that something of interest was just written. The reader had to figure out exactly what that was.

Tironian et: It once rivalled the ampersand (&). We know who won that fight.

Virgule: According to history, we can thank Buoncompagno da Signa, a 12th-century man of letters, for these two marks: a slash (/) represented short pauses and a horizontal line (-) represented longer pauses. Like da Signa, those uses are long gone.

Manicule: You thought Steve Jobs invented this one for his fledgling Macs in the 80s? Nope. This was used—hand-drawn by readers—way back when to annotate books in an effort to figure out what was meant in a world practically devoid of punctuation.

Snark: Many efforts have been made to punctuate irony. This is one of them. Kind of looks like a raised eyebrow, doesn’t it?

Percontation Mark: This was used to indicate a rhetorical question.

Dagger: Also called an obelisk, this was used by editors in earlier times to mark extraneous writing in translations. These days, it—and its two-headed brother—will often be used to indicate a footnote.

That, my friends, is just the beginning. Don’t be surprised if more get added to the list as time goes on. If you have any faves, drop me a line at ron@ronjette.com and let me know. I’d love to add them.