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The Oxbridge Editing Guide To: Sexy Syntax

You had me at your impeccable spelling and correct use of grammar.

Not all grammar is made equal. Some rules – such as full stops at the end of sentences, capital letters at the start – follow a rigid framework and slip into your writing without second thought. But there are other lesser known forms which, when used correctly, can bring some glamour to your grammar. Read on to discover a punctuation portmanteau you’ve never heard of, a modern mark that is trying to become mainstream, and our favourite grammatical construction of the moment. This is syntax, made sexy.


Informally known as a quexclamation mark, the interrobang – ‽ – combines the functions of question mark and exclamation mark in order to convey the excitement, disbelief, urgency or rhetorical nature of a question. This hybrid mark – named by merging the Latin for ‘query’ (interrogatio) and the proofreader’s slang for exclamation (bang) – was invented in 1962 by Martin K. Speckter, a journalist turned advertising executive who disliked the ugliness of multiple punctuation marks (‘?!’) at the end of a sentence. Although embraced throughout the 1960s, with the word ‘interrobang’ appearing in some dictionaries and the mark itself featuring in magazine and newspaper articles, this nonstandard symbol has never quite caught on, despite still being included in many modern typefaces. But with the Internet having already revived the careers of previously unloved characters such as @ and _, could the era of 140 character communication signal a new start for the interrobang? (Could it‽)

Irony Mark

Unlike the spoken word, it can be difficult to indicate irony or sarcasm within writing, relying instead on the reader’s right interpretation. Indeed, Katherine Rosman noted in the Wall Street Journal that “Sarcasm is a challenge for academics and marketers trying to analyze online chatter to gauge public opinion” (31st October 2012). Throughout history, there have thus been various attempts to introduce irony punctuation marks, most notably the percontation point proposed by English printer Henry Denham in the 1580s, and the irony point proposed  by Marcellin Jobard and French poet Alcanter de Braham during the 19th century. Both take the form of a reversed question mark – ؟ – to indicate that a sentence should be understood at a second level. More recently the expression of irony has been taken up by father and son team, Douglas and Paul Sak, whose SarcMark – available to download for free from sarcmark.com – is designed to designate when a sentence or phrase is meant to be sarcastic. Witty wordsmiths: rejoice.

(Disclaimer: This is unlikely to become an acceptable marker within academic essays, so best to try out informally for now.)

Em Dash

Oh the double dasher. If it is possible to be in love with punctuation, this wins our hearts. Why? Well the em dash adds syntactical interest and supplementary information without resorting to a secondary sentence, allowing the writer to amplify, interrupt or digress from the main clause whilst maintaining an elegant, sinewy flow (e.g. ‘I thought I had time – more than enough time – to catch the train.’). Furthermore, according to celebrity grammarian Lynne Truss, “you can’t use it wrongly – which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virture” (Eats, Shoots and Leaves). Though we feel this advice should come with a caveat – that the double dash can be over-used and writers should be wary not to craft prose that looks like Morse code – the ease with which the em can be exercised means you don’t need to be afraid of working it into your writing. And as for the name? Em dashes, quite simply, are the width of a capital M – and not to be confused with the en dash (width of a capital N), which are used to indicate a range (‘read pages 62-65’) or connection (‘read the April-May issue’).


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