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Comashes and interro-what’s: Digressions in punctuation

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 1, 2010, page 10)

There’s a lot to love about digressions. They’re quirky, refreshing intervals that are often more intriguing than the matter at hand.

Case in point: In 2008 I was working on an editing project with a colleague when she interrupted our work-related emails with an excerpt from Michael Quinion’s e-newsletter. Quinion, if you don’t know him, is the author of the addictive usage website World Wide Words, whose essays treat everything from the etymology of insinuendo (wherein Quinion rebuts the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary) to the meaning of heroin chic.

But I digress…

In the excerpt my colleague sent me, Quinion wrote of having stumbled on a new punctuation term, the comash, which he had read about in a snippet by author Will Self in The Guardian. Quinion said of the comash, which is a comma followed by a dash (,—), “Its name is so rare that we may presume that Will Self invented it.” (He means invented the name, not the mark itself, which Quinion dates back to the time of Shakespeare.)

Quinion’s suggestion that Self coined the term is hardly outlandish. Self, the child of, in his own words, “intellectually snobbish parents,” has written books with titles like The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, neither exactly suggestive of an author who’s timid or lacking in inventiveness. However, with all due respect to Michael Quinion, it’s more likely that Self borrowed the term from Nicholson Baker, a novelist and essayist of Self’s own generation (and approximate level of erudition), who wrote about the mark in his 1993 essay “The History of Punctuation.”

I’d come across Baker’s essay years earlier, and it had stayed with me as one of the finest pieces on punctuation I’d ever read. The essay, contained in Baker’s 1996 book The Size of Thoughts, is ostensibly a review of Dr. Malcolm Parkes’s Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. I say “ostensibly” because the first mention of Parkes’s prodigious tome (which, Baker remarks, “is not an easy book to read in bed”) comes a full five pages into the essay, and Baker abandons Parkes entirely in the last third of the piece to discuss a punctuation phenomenon missing from Parkes’s book: dash-hybrids, of which the commash is one.

Digression: Some of you will have noticed from the previous sentence that Baker spells the word with an extra “m.” He may be entitled to do so, as he claims in his essay to have named the mark himself. (He also names the semi-colash [;—] and the colash [:—], the other dash-hybrids he covers.) On the Internet, the only spelling I can find associated with the punctuation mark is comash, the double “m” version having been co-opted primarily by rock bands (e.g., the Shaven Commash and Captain Commash). I’ve therefore settled on comash for this article.

But enough of spelling. The comash may have arisen in Shakespeare’s time, but the dash-hybrids as a family flourished much later, in Victorian prose. Baker cites as examples the work of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, Thomas de Quincey, George Eliot, John Ruskin and especially Anthony Trollope, who used a dash-hybrid on “practically every page.” Yet by about World War I, dash-hybrids had all but disappeared. Whether they seemed redundant or struck writers as old-fashioned or were simply one more bit of Victorian frippery to fall victim to 20th-century modernism, it’s hard to say. Baker recalls having “timidly tried to use a semi-colash in an essay for The Atlantic Monthly in 1983: the associate editor made a strange whirring sound in her throat, denoting inconceivability, and I immediately backed down.”

Around the time the Quinion article came my way, another digression plunged me into the realm of esoteric punctuation. This digression wasn’t a true digression, having stemmed from “Hidden Hyphen, Crouching Comma,” a detailed and idiosyncratic presentation on punctuation, capitalization and spelling by Ramona Montagnes, co-author of The Canadian Writer’s Handbook. I listened to Montagnes with rapt attention, as did everyone present (this was, after all, a meeting of the Editors’ Association of Canada), while she ran through the more delightful trends in punctuation in recent years. But my trance was broken when she mentioned, off-handedly and only once, the interrobang. The interro-what? I asked myself. Montagnes didn’t elaborate and I felt too cowed to ask, certain I was the only one in the crowd of editors who didn’t get it.

As soon as I got home that night, Google and I resolved the matter. In the days that followed, as I casually sprinkled my emails and conversations with references to the interrobang, I discovered, with no small measure of relief, that none of the editors, writers or other word people in my circle knew what it was either. (I would love to know how many Google hits “interrobang” got the night of that Editors’ Association presentation.)

So what is this punctuation oddity? You’ll see it in the title of this article: it’s a single mark that combines the question mark (the interro) and the exclamation point (the bang). The mark debuted in the early 1960s, when American advertising executive Martin Speckter proposed it as a handy substitute for the ?! combination often resorted to by copywriters (who seemingly needed to evoke the full range of emotions with every ad). The interrobang caught on for a while; this was, after all, the sixties and seventies, when everyone was game for something new. But the mark ultimately fizzled, leaving behind a nifty-sounding word that’s been appropriated by groups ranging from an Australian handbag design firm, to Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, whose weekly student newspaper is named after the mark, to—yes—a rock band (erroneously, and in fact pointlessly, identified on YouTube as “Interrobang!”). There’s even a web page whose sole purpose is “to move the INTERROBANG from the obscure to the ubiquitous.”

Yet you won’t find the interrobang just anywhere. It’s in the symbol set of Calibri, the default font in Microsoft Word 2007. It’s also included in Cambria, Candara, Consolas, Constantia and Corbel, the other fonts developed by Microsoft for clearer on-screen reading. There’s a slender, almost aristocratic version of it in Palatino Linotype, another recent digital font (actually an update of a mid-twentieth-century design). And there are four (count ’em, four) versions of the interrobang in Wingdings 2. Other than that, good luck tracking down the mark in standard font sets.

If Internet citations are any indication—and I’d argue they are—there appears to be some solid cultish interest in the interrobang but almost none in the comash. Why the disparity?

It may have something to do with Microsoft’s influence: by offering the interrobang in newer font sets, the company might have lent it some cachet. Or it may stem from our techno-culture’s love of all things retro, with “retro” narrowly encompassing the 1960s to 1980s, those experimental decades when the interrobang was born, and not the Victorian age, era of snuff, bric-a-brac and mourning jewellery.

But to me, there’s a cultural influence here that goes beyond the question of which decades we today find fashionable. The comash creates an elongated pause, more drawn out than either the comma or the dash creates by itself. Along with the other dash-hybrids, the comash is the creation of a more leisurely time, a time when people read more slowly, read aloud even, sought out rhythm and savoured it. It was an era of profuse punctuation, because people had time to pause. The interrobang, on the other hand, is an efficient “two marks in one” saver of time and space, perfect for an age that demands both high speed and maximum impact from its texts.

All of which spells doom for the comash,—unless we can resurrect it as an emoticon. Could it signify…I don’t know…a digression?