Exclamation Points! Their Time Has Come!

Typographically, exclamation points derive from stacking the letters in the Latin word io (exclamation of joy). And though they have been around for a long time—since the 15th century—there was no separate key for exclamation points on typewriters before the 1970s. For as long as I can remember, grammarians have told us to use them sparingly, if at all. I’ve always thought of them as the Comic Sans or clipart of punctuation.

Yet, only four short decades after the exclamation point got its own spot on a typewriter, a new style guide called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home suggests that we should use them as much as possible (at least in emails).

I’m always deeply suspicious of any correspondence that uses too many exclamation points. I’ve considered setting up a filter on my email that blocks any message with multiple exclamation points in sequence (“!!!”). One of my favorite quotes from Terry Pratchett’s humor-fantasy Discworld series (now on its 157th book, or so it seems) is this one from the title character in the 1990 book Eric:

Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.

There’s a generally accepted rule among my male college friends that no correspondence among any of us should ever include an exclamation point (though this rule is frequently broken in any message referring to Las Vegas or attractive dental hygienists).

And in spite of all this prejudice against the exclamation point, I frequently find myself staring at work-related emails that I am about to send, wondering if I should change “Thanks” to “Thanks!” And I frequently do.

Granted there’s a difference between using an exclamation point in an email and in a professional scenario—as in a business letter, formal writing, or interpretive media. Author Elmore Leonard, detailing his 10 rules of writing, says, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” If you are writing the text for an interpretive exhibit and sticking to the generally accepted rule of 150 words per panel, this means you are allowed one exclamation point roughly every 220 to 330 panels. If you use three exclamation points following “OMG” in a text message, then you are done with them for 999,999 more messages (a week and a half, if you’re some people I know).

If it’s true what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,” then the people of Hamilton!, Ohio, must think they’re pretty funny. In 1986, the city of Hamilton, a town of more than 60,000 happy residents, changed its name to Hamilton! to generate publicity. And you know they’re laughing over at Yahoo! When you click on the exclamation point in the logo at www.yahoo.com, it plays the Yahoo! yodel jingle.

By Leonard’s and many other people’s standards, a lot of people overuse exclamation points, not just in personal communication but in professional writing. Some people refuse to use them altogether (like Elaine’s boss in a very funny episode of Seinfeld), while others can’t update their Facebook statuses without at least three of them. You’ll see me use them on this site occasionally, but I doubt I’ve ever used one in an editorial in Legacy magazine.

I tend to think of exclamation points the same way I do about swearing. They’re crutches people use when they can’t think of words to better express their thoughts—but sometimes it just feels right to let loose. In interpretive writing, I can see justification for using them sparingly (exclamation points, that is, not curse words), but when you’re reviewing your writing, I’d encourage removing them first and seeing if they need to be added back in. If you really need the exclamation points, maybe you don’t have the right words yet.

Well, that’s it! See you next week!