The comma. The period. The quotation mark. The apostrophe. These punctuation marks have been familiar friends since elementary school. Now, it’s time to take your knowledge a step further and master some wonderfully obscure punctuation, courtesy of the English language! You might not use these everyday, but they’re fun to bring up and will expand your grammatical toolkit.
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⸮ Irony Punctuation
If you’ve ever wished that you could communicate sarcasm in text as well as you do in speech, then check out this obscure class of punctuation that’s been out of usage since the 17th century. The “percontation point” (⸮) is essentially a backwards question mark. It used to appear at the end of sentences to indicate that the preceding sentence should be read as a rhetorical question (that is, a question that does not require an answer or already has an answer implied by the context of asking).
A more specific alternative was proposed by the French poet Alcanter de Brahm in 1899. His “irony mark,” a mark that resembled a backwards question mark, was raised like superscript. Several other writers suggested punctuation marks that varied widely in appearance, but were intended to solve the same need. In theory, the mark would indicate that a sentence was meant to be understood on more than just a literal level.
The tilde (~) is probably better known as “that squiggly line you use instead of a dash when you’re trying to be fancy signing an email.” In fact, the tilde is actually a useful punctuation mark when used properly. In English, a tilde often goes before a description of quantity or time to indicate an approximation, as in “~20 miles away.” In mathematics, it can also signify “similar to,” as in “x ~ y.”
In other languages, the tilde is used as a means of indicating a change in pronunciation. The most well-known instance of this is the Spanish letter ñ, a letter between “n” and “o” that makes its own specific consonant sound.
In terms of history, the asterisk (*) has one of the longest runs of all punctuation marks. Over two thousand years ago, Aristarchus of Samothrace used an early asterisk to mark lines of Homeric poetry that were duplicated during the proofreading process. This usage—to denote something that needs editing or other attention—has persisted to this day.
On the flip side of things, asterisks have also grown into another usage: as a means of censoring content deemed inappropriate. The asterisk is used to soften expletives while still maintaining the integrity and understanding of a sentence by replacing letters in a given word with asterisks. In the digital age, this practice has spread to non-expletive words, with software sometimes replacing a letter or two in a word or name with asterisks in order to avoid detection by algorithms or by other users searching for that word or name.
At some point, you’ve probably encountered a sentence (usually in informal writing) where the author needed to express excitement and a question at the same time. The typical option for this expression is to use a question mark followed by an exclamation point, like so: ?! While this makes perfect sense, it turns out there’s a singular punctuation mark that conveys the same meaning: the interrobang (‽).
The symbol is actually incredibly intuitive: its physical appearance is a question mark with the vertical line of an exclamation point going right down the middle before joining with the stem of the question mark. Imagine superimposing an exclamation point on top of a question mark and you get the idea. This one hasn’t been around as long as some of the others on this list—it was first invented by advertising executive Martin K. Speckter in 1962 as a means of making cleaner ad copy. It was popular during that decade, but faded in usage in subsequent years. However, some digital fonts still include the symbol.