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Author Ink Blog

Observations and musings of a technical writer based in Hampshire.

I Shall Disarm You With My Super Charged Interrobang! (And Other Obscure Punctuation Marks)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In his Guardian piece Make Way for a New Social Media Icon: The Interrobang, Peter Robinson talks of his predilection for staring at his keyboard and wondering which will be the next lucky character to enjoy the same phenomenal rise to stardom as the previously humble symbol. I know exactly where he's coming from: for me, it's the tilde. I’ve always had an affection for the tilde [~] character on my keyboard - it’s wiggly and thus by definition, friendly; unlike the sharp (and thus by definition, snippy) hyphen or dash. 


So, imagine my consternation to learn (from the aforementioned article) that the super friendly tilde is now commonly used on social media to signify disdain. Disdain! And so I got to thinking about the myriad of punctuation marks that we use on a day-to-day basis and then, what about the ones that have fallen out of favour, or those that never quite made it to the party playlist? Which of those will be the next to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, blinking and unprepared?


Take, for example, the interrobang:



Have you seen the attention lavished on this little question/exclamation mark hybrid recently? It has its own website (albeit there's not a whole lot happening there at the moment - oh sweet irony) and there are cartoons and t-shirts...it's the punctuation equivalent of One Direction. Sort of. 


But why is this Claire? I hear you cry. I'm afraid I have to tell you that I just don't know. Maybe it's the fact that the character looks so cool, or maybe it's that the name sounds like it could be a secret weapon for any self-respecting super hero. It's a mystery best left to those with huge, typographical brains.


For the rest of us, a quick search about the web throws up many articles on obscure punctuation marks - there are even essays and dissertations on the subject. Nothing so highbrow here; I’ve settled on some of the marks which I think look interesting, and bundled them into a little infographic (any excuse!). If, as was I, you're wondering how you can use these symbols on a Mac or  Windows computer, carry on reading for some high-level guidance.


Obscure Punctuation Marks - Infographic


Using Obscure Punctuation Marks on a Mac


If you're using a Mac, available characters and symbols can be accessed from the character viewer:


  1. Open the character  viewer (select special characters from the edit menu or press ctrl++space bar).

  2. Search or browse for the required character - if you already know the relevant unicode you can enter it into the search field. Alternatively, you can search for the character name (e.g.interrobang).

  3. To insert a character, ensure that your cursor is at the required location in your document and then either double-click the character (in the character viewer) or drag it from the character viewer to the required location.

Using Obscure Punctuation Marks on a Windows Computer


If you're using a Windows computer, available characters and symbols can be accessed from the character map:


  1. Press the Windows start key.

  2. Type character map in the search/run field.

  3. Select the character map program (or right-click and choose to pin the character map program to your taskbar or start menu - useful if you’re going to be using special characters a lot).

-Alternatively-


In many applications, you can simply type the unicode for a character or symbol. This isn’t entirely straightforward since prerequisite setup can vary between Windows versions and also registry settings. However, in some programs (for example, Microsoft Word) you can type the unicode, immediately followed by alt+x.    


Note: Apologies for stating the obvious, but you'll only see characters if you have an installed font which contains them - many applications are clever enough to switch to the most appropriate font automatically but sometimes you might have to select the right font yourself.


Different fonts have different characters for the same unicode, so the appearance of the character will depend on the font which is defined in the web browser or application. Also bear in mind that not every unicode is available in every font.


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