This just in! We’re using too many exclamation points!!! This seems to be a symptom of modern times. It’s probably because electronic communication can be so boring, we feel the need to spice it up. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald likened exclamation marks to laughing at your own joke. And the late bestselling author, Elmore Leonard, said we’re only allowed to use 2-3 per 100,000 words. Yikes!
I was allowed to use that last one because exclamation marks are intended for interjections like “Ouch!” They can also be used for exclamatory sentences like, “It’s a boy!” However, when we overuse them, it can sound like we’re yelling all the time. They also lose their emphasis when everything is emphasized.
My teachers certainly discouraged me from using exclamation marks. That would have smacked of false pride and we might have gotten smacked for puffing up our sentences. But when I was teaching, I was guilty of exclamation excess. I tried to come up with a one-word shout for every essay — Wonderful! Moving! Beautiful! I stayed away from Amazing! because my French students made fun of Americans for overusing it. If the essay were only so-so, I’d write “Entertaining!”
Now, however, we’re seeing a huge increase in exclamation marks due to our shorthand forms of communication — emails and texts. It’s estimated that 50% of our e-mails are misunderstood, so maybe that’s why we add the emphasis. “Unpaid Invoice!” Hopefully the client gets that.
Exclamation marks are not only a contemporary phenomenon, they were invented relatively recently. They first surfaced in the 1400s. It’s believed they were derived from the Latin word “lo” which meant joy. At some point, the “l” appeared above the “o” and morphed into our favorite mark. Now, we use strings of them to spruce up our e-mail. This is especially true of women, who use exclamation marks at four times the rate of men.
In fact, women are far more likely to use fun punctuation, like smiley faces, haha’s and exclamation marks. There is a downside to this because they run the risk of not being taken seriously. Some believe that women undermine their authority when they get too cutesy. They think businesswomen should limit their emoticons and exclamation marks to their personal emails.
Who can forget the Seinfeld episode when Elaine sprinkled them too liberally through an advertising catalogue? She was forced to do this because her then-boyfriend failed to use one when he wrote a note about Elaine’s friend having a baby. Punctuation became grounds for termination of their relationship.
So in the future, I’m going to limit my exclamation marks, especially in my emails. I just checked some that I’ve sent and found subject lines like Congratulations! Finished! and Hilarious! But I still think there are appropriate places to use them.
For example, the kids are back in school!
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.