The Good Word

¿Does English Need Upside-Down Punctuation?


Photo by Holly Allen

Word, word, word, word, word, punctuation mark. This is how we read. Sometimes there are more words, or fewer. Occasionally additional marks—commas, em-dashes—enter the mix. But that’s pretty much how it works. We read the words in order and then, boom, punctuation mark. We move on to the next sentence. If there is one.   

This is how we read! On the surface, that approach seems so natural, so efficient, so beyond reproach. And yet, I can’t help wondering: This is how we read?

Really? This is the best we can do? We’re cool with not knowing whether lots of sentences—“This is how we read,” for example—are declarations, exclamations, or questions until after we’ve finished them and are clued in by the punctuation mark?

I say we can do better. Sure, the traditional manner of punctuating sentences in English works fine much of the time. But flaws in the process crop up. Flaws that we can fix.

Think about it. When you’re reading a sentence the writer intended as an exclamation, by the time the exclamation point comes in, you’ve already read all the information that was supposed to have received emphasis! When your eyes reach the punctuation, you already know your wife got the big promotion, or the Pittsburgh Pirates finally made the playoffs, and you’ve missed the chance to read the relevant sentence from start to finish for the first time with the appropriate tone. A similar scenario occurs with some written questions that aren’t worded in obvious question form. You know what I mean?

The punctuation marks in these instances function like pseudo-footnotes, coming in after the fact to tell you: By the way, you should’ve gotten excited about that last thing you just read, or, Hey, those words you just saw combined to form a question, even though they might have seemed like a regular old sentence as you read them.

Nearly any sentence can be an exclamation as long as the situation is right and the speaker or writer is sufficiently agitated. I went to the store on Tuesday! Lyle is boring! Ground beef! In many cases, until the end punctuation comes in, only the writer knows if a sentence was meant to have that extra flair that an exclamation point brings.

Take Jennifer Senior’s October interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, in which exclamation points abound. In nearly every case, the reader discovers that Scalia has become worked up only after the fact. When noting that even ladies are using the F-word these days, Scalia adds, “People that I know don’t talk like that!” At the end we realize: Oh, he got a little loud there. But we’ve already moved on! There’s no sense in going back and doing it again with more feeling.

So we don’t. We just plow forward—heads down, inherent punctuational flaw blithely ignored.

Such scenarios are likely less common with written questions than they are with exclamations, but similar problems arise there, too. Some questions read like declarative sentences right up until the end. There is a car that can drive itself? Some fish prefer to feed at dusk? Most people really have no problem with the fact that they have to read many sentences to the very end before they figure out what tone and emphasis were intended for the words they already finished reading?

More traditionally phrased questions present less of a problem, because context cues often alert readers that a question is coming. But while many questions in English begin with a small subset of words—who, what, where, when, why, how, etc.—some do not. And many sentences that begin with those words don’t end up as questions. What fun it was to note earlier that the Pirates made the playoffs! When writing pieces like this, it’s good to have fun. So while context clues can provide giveaways that you are reading a question rather than an ordinary declarative statement, those methods aren’t foolproof.

All of this seems like settling to me. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t even have to come up with an innovative approach for solving the problem. It’s already been solved for us.

There is an elegant, efficient typographic option that would allow us to know before we read an exclamation or a question that we should proceed in reading it a bit differently than we would a normal declarative sentence. In Spanish, inverted punctuation marks serve as warning signs prior to a question or exclamation’s beginning. These inverted marks are both handy and precise—they can be used not just at the start of a sentence, but also within the body of a sentence to indicate the exact spot where the interrogative or exclamatory tone begins.

So, in written Spanish, People that I know don’t talk like that! is ¡La gente que conozco no habla así! And with longer sentences, it’s possible to be more accurate about when tone or emphasis is intended. After all this time, with all these improperly read sentences, why is it that we still read this way? becomes Después de tanto tiempo, con todas estas oraciones leídas incorrectamente, ¿por qué aún leemos así?

Look, I’m the last one to encourage the excessive use of exclamation points. But if we are going to use them—and they do come in handy from time to time—we should at least do so in a way that makes good sense. Perhaps this change would even decrease the antipathy some of us feel for exclamation points, since we’d be using them precisely, not as a lazy, reflexive manner of punctuating.

And it’s not like inverted marks are some flash-in-the pan punctuation fad: Spanish has used them since the mid-1700s, according to M. B. Parkes’ punctuation history masterwork Pause and Effect. Bothered by some of the same problems that have been bothering me lately, the Real Academia Española proposed this innovation in the 1754 edition of its orthography treatise, which noted that “after a long examination it has seemed to the Academy that the same question mark should be used, placing it upside down before the word at which the interrogative tone begins, in addition to the mark in its usual form which the clause must have at the end; and so avoid the misunderstanding which is commonly experienced in the reading of long periods for lack of any mark …”   

The Real Academia Española applied the same rule to exclamation points, and books published by the academy thereafter began implementing the inverted marks, though often in a haphazard manner. By 1780, Parkes notes, the royal printer “was using them consistently for both questions and exclamations throughout his new, corrected, four-volume edition of Don Quixote.”

Other publishers and writers followed suit until, eventually, use of the inverted marks became the norm. And, really, amen for that, because reading exclamations and questions in Spanish is wonderful! You know beforehand how the upcoming words should be treated in terms of tone. There’s no waiting around for the end punctuation. The whole thing just works, and the nature of the change—made midstream to a well-established language in response to a perceived deficiency—shows that it’s not too late to fiddle with English writing norms simply because existing rules are firmly established.

Now, in urging that we turn our system of punctuation on its head, I do not mean to suggest that written English and written Spanish are perfect analogs, or that what works in one language will necessarily work in the other. There are clear differences between the two—for instance, the frequent use of cue-carrying auxiliary verbs such as do and can at the beginning of questions asked in English, but not in Spanish, may make these inverted marks more useful in the language of Cervantes. But just because something is more necessary in one context does not render it unhelpful in another.

For those looking to pre-emptively bellyache about what a burden it will be to type the inverted marks, trust me when I say it’s not that hard. The protocol differs depending on the brand of computer you’re using, but on a Mac, for example, simply holding down option and pressing the “1” key will get you an inverted exclamation point.

If I have my way, though, these marks will be represented as shift-key options on all of our keyboards soon enough. Because we will all be using them when we write! Everything will be better then. We’ll live in a glorious new world where questions that read like declarative sentences never spur confusion, and where we’ll never to have wonder for even a moment whether Antonin Scalia is agitated about something completely ridiculous. ¡It will be fantastic!

¿Who’s with me?