Wednesday, 7 August 2013
The Exclamation Mark – or How Not to Make a Point
“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
The exclamation mark (or point) was first used in the English language in the 15th Century. It didn’t show up on standard keyboards until the 1970s. Used to show strong emotion they’re also known informally as ‘shrieks’ – some writers apparently like to shriek a great deal. Particularly on the web.
You’ll find exclamation marks in all sorts of unnecessary places, where good writing would have the same effect, creating its own emphasis through use of words and ordinary punctuation rather than the short cut of the exclamation mark, which in fact more often than not shows weakness rather than strength. In emails in particular exclamation marks seem to be being used more and more – although we usually read or delete emails as a result of the headline, not the text, where they’re frankly wasted, although not maybe quite as badly as shouting by WRITING EVERYTHING IN CAPS!
Personally I am anti-exclamation marks unless I feel there is a really good reason for using one, and if I know I’ve used them I will go back and take them out, re-read, and use sparingly if I think they are really called for.
In an article in the NY Times Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings, The Ten Year Nap) is quoted as saying “There’s a case to be made that the exclamation point is the adverb of punctuation; if you have to put it in, then maybe the sentence didn’t do its job,” she said. “Then again, I’m also highly uneasy about ever using italics. If the exclamation point is the adverb of punctuation, then italics are the Ambien of typography. I guess my only rule is to use the exclamation point sparingly, like adverbs, italics and cortisone cream.”
And again in The Guardian: ‘There is surely a point after which exclamation marks no longer express friendliness. In this post-literal time, exclamation marks become signs of sarcasm as witty correspondents rebel against their overuse. Hence: "I loved your last email! OMG did I LOVE it!!!!!!" The point is they didn't. They were being IRONIC’.
In other words. Make your points through your words. And use the exclamation mark with care if it is not to weaken both your message and your writing style. And if you’re editing someone else’s writing look out for them, and delete as necessary.