Do you like exclamation marks?
Listen to a radio interview about the exclamation mark.
Did you know that the exclamation mark didn’t become a standard feature on keyboards until the 1960s?
Traditional uses of the exclamation mark
For years its usage was fairly standard and we used exclamation marks for:
Urgent commands (Run!)
Expressing emotions (We won!)
Irony (‘How nice!’ she said when I told her I was working over the Christmas break.)
Exclamation marks now used to express emotion
Yet over the last decade, the exclamation mark appears to be morphing from an expression of strong emotion to a statement of friendliness. Or in the case of spammers, to add urgency to subject lines!
However, its bad reputation as a sign of sloppy writing remains. Take these quotes:
‘So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading “laughter” to a studio audience.’
Miles Kingston, Punch
‘Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.’
Fowler’s Modern English Usage
The use of an exclamation mark to express irony seems to be dying. A more common usage is several exclamation marks in a row to express sarcasm, and some writers now express irony through emoticons, such as a smiley face or a wink.
Exclamation marks used more in informal than formal writing
The use of exclamation marks in emails is growing. Many writers who responded to my e-newsletter piece on emails, admitted to using exclamation marks in emails, though some said they tried to limit the number they used and would often delete some before pressing ‘send’.
In an article in the Guardian (‘The Joy of Exclamation Marks!’), Stuart Jeffries quotes David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, who defend exclamation marks in their book, Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.
Shipley and Schwalbe state that ‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact, whereas ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your readers know you’re pleased and excited about the event. The authors also state that email has a ‘dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be’.
Jeffries also quotes research by Carol Waseleski (‘Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication’), who found that women use more exclamation marks than men. Ouch! Or is that a good thing if exclamation marks increase friendliness?
I don’t use exclamation marks in formal writing, but I do in emails and texts. When I think about why I use them in emails, it’s often because I’m writing in haste and exclamation marks are a short-cut (lazy?) way of attaching some emotion (not just friendliness) to my words. Sometimes an exclamation mark seems to soften a statement or give my writing a bit more oomph.
Yes, I could write without them, but they are handy.
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