There is an inverse proportion between the number of exclamation points appearing in a text and persuasiveness. This also applies to text in bold or all caps. Too often, we see all three used together. Yes: AT THE SAME TIME!!!!!!!!! Sure, there is a time where the use of one type of formatting or a singular punctuation might add something for the reader. Too often I see them used as yelling, in fact, I’ve noticed a steady increase in this usage. I read it as insecurity. I get the feeling the author isn’t really invested in her or his own assertion. “No really, you must believe me!!!!!” Did the boy who cried wolf overuse his exclamation points?
I’m not speaking of the mathematical use of the symbol to represent a factorial operation. I’m not complaining about the use of the symbol in many programming languages. I’m not talking about its use as notation used to represent a specific consonant for writing click languages of some African tribes. I applaud its use in the comics. Indeed exclamation points seem rather at home among the speech balloons and “sound effects.” Where would comic strips and comic books be without KAPOW! BLAM! KABOOM! and ZAP!? I’m not complaining about the occasional well-positioned use in fiction if it helps create the mood of a story, informs us about a character’s feelings, even the author’s feelings. My objection is the increasing prevalence of exclamation marks used unnecessarily in books, papers, social media, e-mail, ad campaigns, and text messages.
I’m not the first person to disparage the overuse of the exclamation point, or if you are British, exclamation mark. I’m writing this as a confession because I was shocked! SHOCKED! to discover that I, too, am guilty. GU!LTY!!!! (And, from here on out I’ll stop with the cutesy overuse of exclamation points and yelling in my own blog.) This exclamation overuse crept up on me with great stealth until I was using it almost automatically without realizing it.
I became aware of my overuse of exclamation points when I recently went back to a story I had started years ago. I experienced the dreaded writer’s block but eventually I was able to get back to my story. I began by re-reading what I’d written so far in order to pick up the thread. Thus began my discovery of my own gross overuse of the exclamation point. My reaction to these was that they were usually distracting and broke the flow of reading. Where I used more than one, the text felt insincere. On closer inspection, it was often a failing in my writing to convey what I wanted and removal alone was not enough. I re-wrote some sentences, I think improving the message and story.
During this crusade to eliminate or at least minimize the number of exclamation points I used, I became curious about the origin of this punctuation and sought information that might help me shed light on a usage of it I could live with.
As far as I could find, there is no definitive evidence about its origin. There is, however, a rather plausible theory that it all started with Latin. In Latin “IO” is a word used to express joy, or something like “hurray”. Medieval Latin copyists represented it by placing “I” over “O.” Over time the size of the “o” was decreased making the close resemblance to the exclamation point we know today. Toward the late Medieval period this punctuation made its way into English printing. It was referred to as a sign of admiration or wonderment. Fast forward from the 15th century to the days of early typewriters beginning late 18th and early 19th century. It is notable that the exclamation point was not represented on these keyboards. The way to create this mark was to type a period, backspace and type an apostrophe over it. The exclamation point wasn’t given its own typewriter key until the 1970s.
While digging up that bit of information, I discovered it is referred to as a screamer, gasper, slammer, startler, or dog’s cock in the printing world. I often refer to it as a bang, a holdover from my tech days. It is also called a shriek by some tech folk, or in the UK a pling.
Style guides seem to agree that this punctuation should be used with care and caution.
Associated Press Stylebook:
Emphatic expressions: Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion…Avoid overuse: Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period.
The Chicago Manual of Style:
Use of the exclamation point. An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.
The Punctuation Guide:
The most flagrant way a writer demonstrates contempt for his readers is by ignoring punctuation altogether. A close second is the abundant use of the exclamation point. Some writers even use three or more exclamation points, lest the reader not fully grasp the significance of what is being said…To be effective, the exclamation point should be used in moderation.
In the 1800s there some great authors who used the exclamation point in their work, for example, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.
Rose Eveleth in SmithsonianMag online gives us one example where “…the exclamation point serves its purpose.” Victor Hugo wanted to know how his book was doing and sent his publisher a telegram which read, “?”. The publisher’s reply? A simple “!”
Alas, by the end of the 1800s, use of the exclamation point was becoming quite the fashion in lurid novels and sensationalist press, think tabloids (apparently those printers called it a screamer or a shriek). Which may, in part explain why it was so out of favor with some other great authors spanning the 1800s early 1900s.
But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you—every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
1900s to present day authors continue to discourage its use.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series contains characters who remark:
Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.
And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.”
And I’ll include only one celebrity here, Steve Martin Tweeted:
…I play with the Boston Pops! I must be excited, because I used one of my few remaining exclaimation (sic) marks.
There is at least one blog that collected images of excessive, often humorous overuse of the exclamation mark. In my brief search I found discussion about the use of this punctuation in Smithsonian, The New York Times, the French version of Slate, Legal Writing Prof Blog, didimi communications, the Economist online, NPR, and The Guardian. Not all sentiment is against the exclamation mark per se, but against its overuse. Some proponents feel it is a useful way for people to express themselves on the other hand some opponents have proposed that children should be trained not to use it at all.
The “to use or not to use” question has entered everyday culture. I never saw it, but a couple of articles referred to a Seinfeld episode when Elaine and her boyfriend broke up over an exclamation point:
Elaine: See right here? You wrote “Myra had the baby” but you didn’t use an exclamation point.
Elaine: It’s nothing, forget it. I just found it curious.
Jake: What’s so curious about it?
Elaine: Well, if one of your close friends had a baby and I left you a message I would use an exclamation point.
Jake: Well, maybe I don’t use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do.
Elaine: You don’t think that someone having a baby warrants an exclamation point?
Jake: Hey, look, I just jotted down the message. I didn’t know that I was required to capture the mood of each call.
Elaine: I just thought you’d be a little more excited about a friend of mine having a baby.
Jake: OK, I’m excited. I just don’t happen to like exclamation points.
Elaine: Well, you know, Jake, you should learn to use them! Like the way I’m talking right now, I would put exclamation points at the ends of all of these sentences! On this one! And on that one!
Jake: Well you can put one on this one — I’m leaving!
The exclamation point has grown a personality or even multiple personalities, sometimes temperamental, unstable, or capricious, sometimes a helpful one.
Erin Dougherty, didimi communications wrote:
The exclamation point is the only unit of punctuation that has an emotional content, one that seems to have mood swings too. No one reads into the emotional state of a question mark, and who in their right mind questions the finality of a period? But the exclamation point has evolved since its first use by an overly excited Roman to encompass admiration, anger, warning, excitement and a host of other meanings, which seems to me to make it a useless bit of punctuation. Writing can be a minefield of misunderstandings just waiting to erupt on an unsuspecting reader. Why add more fodder to the mix?
Geoff Nunberg, linguist contributor on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, in a piece called “After Years Of Restraint, A Linguist Says ‘Yes!’ To The Exclamation Point” expresses this opinion:
The written language provides us with a dozen or so punctuation marks to clarify our meaning, but only one that conveys our feelings about what we’re saying.
He also mentions that “Apple computer forbids its distributors to use it in their ads. The British school curriculum penalizes students for using it.”
Lynne Truss, the author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”
But e-mails seemed from the start to require different punctuation…As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’
When I read this, the image of exclamation point as Foghorn Leghorn popped into my own personal speech balloon, “Pay attention son! Listen to me when I’m talkin’ to ya!” Being a big fan, this made me want to cut the exclamation point a little slack. So, I’m going to try to be fine with it in proper context and moderation. As a writer, I try to be clear and not force my readers to sit back and wonder what I actually mean. I think misuse is probably the key for me. Does it interfere with the rhythm and flow of reading? If it doesn’t break that flow or get in the way and it contributes to the mood, thought, action, or story I think I’ll still use it. If it gets in the way I’ll be rid of it.
￼Sources and citations
Act III, Scene II of Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Wikipedia, History of the Exclamation Mark
Smithsonian Magazine, History of the Exclamation Point
Punctuation Guide by Jordan Penn
Ragan’s PR Daily
NPR: After years of Restraint A Linguist Says Yes To the Exclamation Point
New York Times: Exclamation Points and E-Mails
didimi communications: The Dreaded Exclamation Point?!