Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Learning the Interrobang with Resident Evil 5!?

Screen capture from Chapter 1-2: Public Assembly in Resident Evil 5 on XBOX 360.
Though often unintentionally, I find that I either 1) learn something new everyday or 2) learn I've been wrong all along about something about which I should have known better. A recent case in point is the use of both the exclamation (!) and question (?) marks at the same time to punctuate a single clause. I had always been under the impression that this was poor grammar, and while I'll maintain that it is still poor to do so in more formal modes, after many years of preaching the evils of doing so, I have been wrong.

While recently playing Resident Evil 5 on X-Box 360, a cut scene came on which again caused me to question one of my existing grammar beliefs around punctuation. As the game's two protagonists, Chris and Sheva,  were entering a foreboding storage facility, the two engage in a quick conversation with helicopter pilot Kirk. During this scene, the helicopter is attacked at which point Kirk exclaims, "What the f*** are those!? Mathison to HQ, I'm under attack by flying B.O.W.'s!" In many video games, when dialogue is being delivered in-game or during cut scenes, it also appears on screen. This is also the case with the Resident Evil games I have played on my XBOX 360 system.

This is actually at least the third instance of this combination of punctuation symbols, suggesting that the exclamation-question mark combo is legit. Earlier, when Chris is attempting to communicate with another off screen character he exclaims (along with the dialogue typed-out onscreen), "DeChant! Do you copy!?" The fact that each of these grammatical instances appear in fairly close proximity to one another in a ba-jillion dollar video game franchise, caused me to (again) ask the question: is it grammatically correct to use both a question mark and an exclamation mark following a statement? Part of me knew it somehow had to be otherwise why would the producers of such a popular (and culturally influential) video game choose to go this route without some purpose. This is not the product of some hack (such as myself) writing fan-fiction in upstate New York.

T-Virus parasitic zombies from
Resident Evil 6 are probably
interrobang worthy. 
One way that I have previously imparted to my students this perceived misuse of punctuation symbols is by asking a number of the young thespians in my classes to read a statement (for example, "I like ice cream") first with each mark individually (! or ?), and then with both side by side(!?). Rarely has "I like ice cream!?" been orated in a manner that is not awkward, or at the very least non-committal or unclear.

In certain rhetorical circumstances, such as when wants to express certain questions with annoyance, excitement, surprise or frustration (among other complex feelings), it IS grammatically acceptable to use exclamation mark in conjunction with the question mark. Apparently it CAN be used, and furthermore, there is an informal name for a punctuation symbols that combines both intentions by combing the marks. This can be in protest or astonishment ("Out of all places, the toilet?!"); a few writers choose to replace the "!?" combo with a single, nonstandard punctuation mark, the interrobang, which is itself a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point. Again, this is grammatically informal.

While use of the ?! combo, or interrobang, is "okay" to the Grammar Gods, to me, it is formally uncool and, in some ways, lazy. I would equate its use in student work as similar to the tendency to the need to lace one's (creative writing) drafts with profanity: if you or your characters have something to express, to do so with profanity (and now with the exclamation-question combo/interrobang) strikes me as sloppy and lazy. I'll continue to suggest that the disciplined writer challenge themselves to find a clearer way using language and punctuation to articulate just what it is you are trying to communicate.


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