Punctuation & Self-Reference

I’ve been thinking about how punctuation marks exhibit self-reference. A mark might indicate something about a sentence, and also embody that same thing: it might be what it describes.

The simplest example is the period. The period tells us the sentence is ending, and in fact it is the end–it’s the very last character that we consider to be part of the sentence.

This constant conjunction of indicating “the end” and being “the end” is so familiar to us that the distinction can be hard to see. Imagine, then, that we were taught to write like this:

Punctuation Rule #1: Place the period after the penultimate word of the. sentence

Of course, that’s a dumb rule, but it shows how, with a different usage convention, the period would not be self-referential. In this altered system, the period tells us where the sentence ends (always after the word that follows it) but it isn’t the end (there’s one more word to go).

Now consider the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark is self-referential because it indicates emphasis, and yet by being less common than the period, it commands our attention and thereby creates emphasis when it occurs. Of course, if we overuse the exclamation mark, it ceases to stand out, and becomes less effective in creating what it indicates.

Punctuation Rule #2: Use it! The exclamation mark! Wherever possible!

In followup posts, I would like to argue that two nonstandard punctuation marks: the interrobang and the irony mark, are a field-day of self-reference. In particular:

The interrobang is baffling

The irony mark is the most ironic thing ever conceived⸮


Punctuating Ironic Questions

How could it possibly confuse you⸮ The irony mark makes everything clear⸮

If you didn’t get it, I’ve just expressed two ironic thoughts about a symbol called the irony mark, written as a reversed question mark.  The symbol is meant to indicate the presence of irony or sarcasm, qualities that are not always obvious to all parties in an exchange.

While its aim is to add clarity to communication, the symbol introduces various kinds of ambiguity; the symbol itself is ironic because it achieves the opposite of its apparent goal.  In a separate post, I will explore that paradox; here, I would just like to propose a “fix” to one small aspect of the irony mark’s ambiguity.

The problem I have in mind is that the irony mark does not distinguish between statements and questions. You’ll notice that I began this post with an ironic question: “How could it possibly confuse you⸮”  Next, I made an ironic statement: “The irony mark makes everything clear⸮”  In both cases I was “forced” to terminate my sentence with the same piece of punctuation. As you can see, the irony mark has clobbered the reassuring distinction between “?” and “.”

To prevent such ambiguity, I propose that we reserve the irony mark for statements, and splice the irony mark with a normal question mark to indicate questions.

My logic is as follows:


This, for example, is how one would ask an ironic question about the presence of irony:


And this is how one would sarcastically question my font choice: