A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 42: ¡gnaborretni?

Photo by Alasdair Gillon.
Photo by Alasdair Gillon.

Happy new year! Are you ready for a hair of the dog? Earlier this month, Dr Jesús Rogel-Salazar, a physicist with interests in quantum mechanics, ultra cold matter, nonlinear optics, computational physics — and punctuation, as it turns out — got in touch on Twitter to ask:

Any idea if inverted interrobangs are/were in use, or are still people using the ¡combination?/¿combination!

Dr Rogel-Salazar didn’t say so explicitly, but I understood his question to refer to the use of punctuation in Spanish, where questions and exclamations are book-ended by normal and rotated marks, like ¿this? and ¡this!

The interrobang, of course, is this mark, ‘‽’, the single-character union of ‘?’ and ‘!’ invented by Martin K. Speckter back in 1962. Since then, however, “interrobang” has also passed into (relatively) common usage to refer to the use of both marks at the end of a sentence, thus: ‘?!’ or ‘!?’.

Now there is technically an inverted interrobang intended for use in Spanish and culturally-related languages such as Catalan and Galician. (Assuming that your browser can display it, it looks like this: ‘’.) As far as I know, the “gnaborretni”, as it is called, is a purely theoretical mark; while the interrobang occasionally surfaces in public (notably in an opinion of the Court of Appeals), I don’t recall ever having come across a gnaborretni. I passed Dr Rogel-Salazar’s query on to Alasdair Gillon, a friend of mine who lives and works in Spain, to see if he could shed some light on it. Here is his reply:

I have never seen the ¿combination! Not anywhere. I may have seen ¡¿this?! once or twice.

Actually, especially in social networking, the upside down marks are disappearing altogether, and people are just going with the rest of the world. You never see it in WhatsApp, SMS or Facebook messages, etc.

I have definitely never seen the inverted interrobang. In fact, I would say I’ve never seen an upright one in Spain, except perhaps for this advert for wine [top right], which caught my eye in Barcelona recently and made me think of you. What else could it be?

What else indeed?

So, have any Shady Characters readers come across the gnaborretni, in either its pure () or debased forms (¡¿)? Is Spanish losing the pleasing rotational symmetry of its questions and exclamations?

19 comments on “Miscellany № 42: ¡gnaborretni?

  1. Comment posted by Brian on

    At first glance, it seems that judicious use of the ¡combination? would be perfect for certain humorous constructions. (In general, redundancy in language makes available a “pivot” that permits the kind of self-contradicting surprise that so much humor depends on.) I’m a little surprised to learn that it’s not used that way.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — I agree! I love the idea of being able to literally move the goalposts between the start and the end of a sentence.

  2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Michael Everson’s submission to ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2, which is responsible for ISO 10646, says that it may have been Spekter himself who devised it.

    I particularly like the proposed French name, POINT EXCLARROGATIF RENVERSÉ.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Wow. That is quite a surprise! I’ll have to ask Penny Speckter if this is the case.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Martijn van der Ven on

    Unicode has (in their infinite wisdom) added glyphs for both exclamation and question mark combinations you mention: ⁈ (U+2048) and ⁉ (U+2049). Even older is the glyph for the double exclamation mark (‼, U+203C), while the double question mark (⁇, U+2047) was added later.

    None of these have inverted forms though.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That is incredible. Is there any justification for this⁈ (You see what I did there?)

    2. Comment posted by Alex Hayes on

      I believe it stems from chess notation, rather than any typographical purpose. An exclamation point indicates an unexpected move, and a question mark a questionable move. Doubling the marks is used as an intensifier, and combining them would annotate a move that is unorthodox, but also probably a mistake.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Ah, I see. (Eliezer suggests the same thing below.) This site would tend to support the chess theory, but I can’t find any documentation at unicode.org to corroborate it. It seems like an odd thing for the Unicode consortium to have spent time on — the paired glyphs in chess can be represented easily enough with individual question and exclamation marks, and Unicode tends to come down on the side of visual rather than semantic units of representation. Odd.

    4. Comment posted by Frédéric Grosshans on

      Actually, it was encoded for Mongolian and not for chess. Quoting vh13,p11 of unicode 6.2: “In modern contexts, Mongolian, Todo, and Sibe may use a variety of Western punctuation marks, such as parentheses, quotation marks, question marks, and exclamation marks. U+2048 QUESTION EXCLAMATION MARK and U+2049 EXCLAMATION QUESTION MARK are used for side-by-side display of a question mark and an exclamation mark together in vertical text.” (http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode6.2.0/ch13.pdf, original proposal here: http://std.dkuug.dk/JTC1/SC2/wg2/docs/n1734.pdf)

      It is used as a punctuation in vertical script. You can see the official approval here: ftp://std.dkuug.dk/JTC1/SC2/wg2/docs/n1904rspw97.htm.

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Frédéric — that makes much more sense. Thanks for weighing in!

    6. Comment posted by Frédéric Grosshans on

      PS: The similar U+2047 DOUBLE QUESTION MARK ⁇ has been encoded later (unicode 3.2, instead of 3.0) for compatibility with a Japanese encoding (cf http://www.unicode.org/L2/L1999/99365-jcs.htm). I guess that U+203C DOUBLE EXCLAMATION MARK ‼ , which is here since Unicode 1.1 or 1.0 has the same origin. Japanese, like Mongol, is often written vertically, so the source of these four double punctuation marks is not chess, but East Asian vertical typography.

  4. Comment posted by SB Kravetz on

    I have been fond of the interrobang ever since I first saw it mentioned in a book by Peg Bracken in the 60s. Her example was “Can you beat it‽” But your note raised an interesting question for me, whose keyboard will not oblige with a proper interrobang. Is there a nuance of difference between ‘?!’ and ‘!?’ ? (Took me a while to figure out how to punctuate that sentence!) Does the ?! indicate more astonishment than puzzlement and the !? vice versa? Or is the order of the marks haphazard and not significant? Your advice would be appreciated.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi SB — my understanding is that there’s no well-defined order. Use ‘?!’ or ‘!?’ as you think best fits your meaning.

      Are there any typographers/compositors reading this who might want to weigh in?

  5. Comment posted by practik on

    My very anecdotal opinion, based on the past six months in Oaxaca, Mexico, is that initial punctuation is going the way of the dodo. Iʼm on a couple of e-mail listservs here, one for work and one for my son’s school, and I (a non-native speaker) am pretty much the only one who bothers with inverted exclamation points or question marks. Iʼve also seen phrases lacking initial punctuation on T-shirts and the like. (I thought I had caught a missing terminal exclamation point, on an ad for acne treatment, but then I realized I was looking at a lowercase i in the brand name “iAcné”.)

    On a side note, Iʼve also been picking up a bit of Spanish txtspk here. Most of it is letter-based, such as “BB” for “bebé” (baby), but two that might interest you more are “+” for “más”, as in the logo of the “No más sangre” initiative (https://www.facebook.com/pages/No-más-sangre/189499737729593) and “x”, used here not as the letter but as the multiplication symbol, for “por”, as in “x favor” (e.g. https://twitter.com/charlycolombo9/status/98910599085432832).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi practik — thanks for the comment. All interesting stuff! I must admit, as translation deals for Shady Characters start to arrive I’m cursing my lack of ability in other languages. It’s nice to have such knowledgeable commenters to help make up for it!

  6. Comment posted by Peter Harvey on

    Catalan does not use inverted punctuation marks. Obviously! They’re used in Spanish so they can’t be Catalan.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Gunther — thanks for the link! If I remember rightly, I experimented with some of the MUFI fonts while writing Shady Characters.

  7. Comment posted by Eliezer on

    There is a use for the interrobang. First, a bit of history: chess analysis notation uses an exclamation mark for a good move and two for an excellent one. One question mark indicates a weak move, and two question marks a blunder. The interrobang (!?) is for a move deserving attention and the (?!) for a dubious move. But actually they are more ligatures than merged characters.

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