This just in! We’re using too many exclamation points! Seems to be a symptom of modern times. 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 points 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 lose their emphasis when everything is emphasized. The Chicago Manual of Style says they “should be used sparingly to be effective.” Now we’re suffering from exclamation mark inflation, along with every other kind of inflation.
My teachers certainly discouraged me from using exclamation marks. It smacked of false pride and we might get 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 foreign students made fun of Americans for overusing it. If the essay was only so-so, I’d write “Entertaining!”
If you don’t believe me about the overuse of exclamation points, try scrolling through your texts. If they are anything like mine, they contain multiple exclamation points from the sender and the receiver. I never use more than one at a time but some people get carried away. The exclamation point has been downgraded from a shout of alarm to a symbol for friendliness. It’s become the “selfie” of grammar.
Now 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 emails are misunderstood, so maybe that’s why we add the emphasis. “Unpaid Invoice!” Hopefully the client gets that. Exclamation points 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. Exclamation points weren’t even added to typewriters until the ’70s. They immediately took up the primary position above the 1. Today we use strings of them to spruce up our emails. 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, ha ha’s and exclamation points. There is a downside to this because they run the risk of not being taken seriously. Some believe women undermine their authority when they get too cutesy. They think businesswomen should only use their emoticons and exclamation points in 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! I’m still limiting myself to one per sentence but, according to a grammar guide, “If you must use more than one exclamation point, always use three!!!”