Are exclamation marks really so bad?
Have you ever found yourself looking back at your writing (whether email, text, blog post, essay) and cringing at the excess of exclamation marks, and found yourself going back to prune them severely? If so, you're not alone: the exclamation mark has become one of the most maligned punctuation marks. Perhaps the only competitor for the title of least loved punctuation mark is the semicolon, and that's because many of us aren't confident about using it correctly. (It's as absent from text messages as exclamation marks are ubiquitous).
The sign of wonder
The exclamation mark -- or exclamation point, as it's known in the US -- seems to have originated in the fifteenth century as a shortening of the Latin io, meaning joy, and was added at the end of sentences by medieval manuscript makers. The o in io is thought to have gradually moved down to below the i, and shrunk to a dot, as a useful contraction. When first used in printed books in the fifteenth century, it denoted importance or significance, and then became known as the 'note of admiration' or wonderment.
In the twentieth century, the exclamation mark became essential in comic books, and was known as the 'bang' in some typesetting manuals. Later, in computing jargon it was termed the 'pling'. It's most commonly used today to denote excitement or surprise, to give a warning, to indicate that a person is shouting, or more generally for emphasis. Perhaps this range of possible meanings partly explains some people's frustration with it. In fact, the exclamation mark has even more uses in computing, mathematics and online. For example, it can denote a well-known personality trait of a protagonist (or deviation from it) in fan fiction, or a potential quest in video games.
The digital smile
The decline in status of the exclamation mark accelerated not long after the email became a common form of communication. A style guide for email users originally advised using plenty of exclamation marks to make up for the perceived lack of warmth in digital communication, and its usage quickly spread. In the workplace, we regularly email people we've never met, and often in order to get them to do something. Exclamation marks are a kind of emollient that keep interactions friendly and upbeat. See you at the conference! Looking forward to meeting you! Thanks very much for your work on this!
When text messaging emerged, exclamation marks became even more essential as a way of heading off the possibility of perceived unfriendliness. Even no punctuation at the end of a text feels preferable to a harsh, cold full stop. Consider the different tones of See you later!, See you later and See you later. Because so much social bonding and connection is conducted through texts, it's not surprising that people think carefully about what impression they are giving through their choice of terminal punctuation. These days, it's also a crucial consideration in tweets, Instagram captions and other types of social media.
The proliferation of exclamation marks in digital communication has led to many opinion columns and authorities on style to criticise its overuse; some have even called for a complete amnesty. And don't get them started on multiple exclamation marks, or combining them with question marks. But is this an overreaction? And is there anything else going on behind these exhortations? Women tend to use more exclamation marks than men, and their usage is likely to be criticised as revealing a 'desperation' to be liked, or a desire to avoid at all costs the possibility of a negative reaction from the recipient. But perhaps women are just more attuned to social nuance and more skilled at building relationships. It's possible to detect a hint of sexism behind some criticisms of exclamation mark use.
The panic in the writer's head
The condemnation of exclamation marks dates back to long before the text and the email, however. Authors and literary style guides have often been sniffy about them. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that 'an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke', while Russell Baker said that 'too many exclamation points make me think the writer is talking about the panic in his own head.' The well-known, if slightly outdated, advice of E.B. White and William Strunk in their influential book The Elements of Style is 'Do not attempt to emphasise simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.' The German philosopher Theodor Adorno heard all punctuation marks as musical sounds; for him, an exclamation mark was a clash of cymbals, the most strident of them all.
Many writers have felt free to ignore Strunk and White's advice. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that overuse of exclamation marks devalues their impact. As with many style or grammar 'rules', it really depends on the context of the writing, and what that writing is trying to do. Dialogue or reported speech, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is likely to need some exclamation marks in order not to seem lifeless and lacking colour. The same applies to a non-fiction book in which the author has adopted a conversational or informal tone, and that relies on building a personal connection between author and reader, for example memoirs, cookbooks, self-help books or other forms of writing informed by the author's personal experiences. More formal, literary or 'serious' writing, especially if aimed at an academic or specialist readership, is likely to avoid them.
Some writers have put forward the useful idea that we have a finite number of each type of mark in our punctuation arsenal, to be used over a whole lifetime of writing. In this arsenal, exclamation marks are in most limited supply. Elmore Leonard advised: 'Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.' We may want to give ourselves a little more leeway, particularly in digital forms of writing, but it's a helpful reminder that by deploying exclamation marks sparingly, with care and precision, they will carry more of the impact we desire. Their use is subjective and not inherently wrong; they are part of how we express ourselves and relate to other people, and each of us is different. But it's helpful to hear that clash of cymbals when we use one, and keep in mind whether we want to deafen our audience.