Everyone who works in the word business has pet peeves about written content. My former colleagues in Northwestern University’s publications office will remember that my big one was the exclamation point.
I had nothing against the exclamation point when used properly, to exclaim. It was overuse that I objected to, particularly to end sentences of unemotional fact.
Our office bible, the Chicago Manual of Style, backed me up. The exclamation point “marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment,” it says, and “should be used sparingly to be effective.” Clients usually didn’t object to deletions of exclamation points, but it wasn’t apparent in their later text submissions and emails that the message had sunk it.
In our academic environment, I unfortunately could not point to great writers to support my case. Famous authors embraced exclamation points, as Ben Platt found for his 2017 book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. Using computer codes to analyze hundreds of novels, Platt came up with each author’s average number of exclamation points per 100,000 words. The results ranged from Elmore Leonard’s 49 to James Joyce’s 1,105. Leonard violated his own advice — he had said that writers should use only two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words — but at least he was more restrained than the other 49 authors.
The recent proliferation of exclamation points has been attributed to digital communication. Generation Z supposedly uses exclamation points more casually because it grew up texting friends.
My Gen Z nieces are likely to end their text messages with no punctuation nowadays, but a few years ago nearly every text they sent me ended with an exclamation point or two or three. Anticipating this post, I saved some: “I haven’t thought about that!!” “Mail it to me at home!” “Yes, it fits!” “Can’t say!” “Not doing much!!!” “Let me check!” “I’m so sorry to hear that!” “I’ll let you know!!” (Fortunately, they’re good sports and won’t mind my using them as examples.)
The Baby Boom generation learned to type on manual typewriters that could not produce an exclamation mark with a single keystroke, which is a reason offered for why we are more restrained about exclamation points. (The former president is an exception.) We grew up using the phone and handwritten messages for personal communication.
Now Get Zers have entered the workplace and brought their texting and tweeting styles to office emails. Career counselors caution that exclamation points can come off as unprofessional and even juvenile in business communication. Feminists have noted a dilemma for women, who, research shows, use more exclamation points than men. “Use too many exclamation points and you won’t be taken seriously, use too few and you can come off as cold,” linguist Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, has said.
The digital use of exclamation points by either sex has been defended because online messages can lack affect. “If I end an email with ‘Thanks!,’ I’m not shouting or being particularly enthusiastic,” linguist Gretchen McCulloch told The Atlantic. “I’m just trying to convey that I’m sincerely thankful, and I’m saying it with a bit of a social smile.”
I’m coming around to accepting more exclamation points! (Given my previous opinion, that admission deserves an !) Because a single exclamation point does not express the intensity it used to, I’m almost willing to accept more than one. But I still don’t think all restraint should be off. Ubiquity lessens the impact of exclamation points as it does anything else.
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