Punctuation drunk – part 1

Alongside your everyday commas, question marks, semicolons and so on, there are other, more exotic, punctuation marks hiding in the shadows. Here are just a few of them...

The Pilcrow: ¶

I’ve got a pendant in the shape of a pilcrow (a present from my friend Bee – here’s a slightly smug-looking picture of me wearing it). You’ve probably seen a pilcrow in Microsoft Word (it’s the button which shows all the usually hidden formatting marks). Sometimes called a paragraph mark, it’s the elder statesman of punctuation, and can trace its roots as far back as Ancient Greece. I’m reliably informed by the internet that its name comes from the Greek word paragraphos, by way of French and Middle English.

But what the hells it for? In the Middle Ages rubricators used a pilcrow to mark a new train of thought in a manuscript. This was before it became usual to start these on a new line. What the hell’s a rubricator I hear you say? Nothing to do with the cubes I’m afraid – rubrication’s when a scribe adds text in red ink to ancient manuscripts for emphasis. I like to think of them as the medieval equivalent of a highlighter pen.

These days, apart from the button in Word which I’ve already mentioned, the pilcrow turns up in:

  • legal and academic documents – it’s used for cross references (it’s more complicated than that, but even I started getting bored writing about it so I gave up)
  • as a proofreading mark to show a paragraph should be split in two (sadly it’s pretty rare that us editors get to use a pen for proofreading these days, so this one might be a dying art)
  • in the order of service for some churches to show that the text following is an instruction to stand up, sit down or kneel (I feel like this could be used in hilarious, and probably blasphemous, ways in the wrong hands)
  • online for something to do with permalinks to avoid link rot. I don’t know what this means.

Interrobang: ‽

New-favourite-word alert! The interrobang is the weird lovechild of the question mark and exclamation mark. It’s the punk rocker of the punctuation world – the enfant terrible. (Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.) In 1962, Martin K Speckter, head of a New York advertising firm, decided it would be better to have a single mark at the end of a rhetorical or surprised question, instead of using ‘!?’ (e.g ‘How the hell did you lose your shoe!?’). It was him who came up with the name interrobang (from the Latin interrogatio and ‘bang’, printers’ slang for the exclamation mark), although he did write a magazine article inviting suggestions for alternatives. In the 60s equivalent of Boaty McBoatface, he got some awesome portmanteaus including ‘emphaquest’ and ‘exclamoquest’ (which might even be slightly better). But ‘interrobang’ stuck, and the mark was even added to a range of US typewriters in 1968. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to save it, and the interrobang was doomed to fade into obscurity. I’ll be doing my very best to bring it back.

When can I use it? Basically, every time anyone says or does something stupid. Like when you drunk text someone and then send a message the next day saying: ‘Don’t know what happened last night‽’


The less popular cousin of the asterisk, the lovely looking asterism takes its name from a group of stars that’s smaller than a constellation. Nice, right?

Why do I need one of those? You probably don’t, to be honest. You can use an asterism to indicate a break in text that’s not as strong as a page break (or the end of a chapter), but bigger than a paragraph. I’ve used one below because it looks pretty, and I feel like it needs an outing. Sadly most people tend to use ‘***’ these days instead, possibly because it has the fabulous name of ‘dinkus’.

Want to know more?

If you can’t wait for part 2 of this post (and let’s face it, it’s pretty damn exciting), check out the book Shady Characters by Keith Houston, which I used when writing this post (a present from my dad – I get a lot of punctuation-based gifts). You can buy yourself one here.