I miss the exclamation point!

exclamation-pointSilk’s post #23 — No one ever seems to talk about punctuation anymore. Once upon a time, students were forced to diagram sentences – an exercise as exciting as algebra, and just about as relevant to the enjoyment of literature. Sentences were to be taught to behave, like errant schoolboys.

Now, despite an entertaining selection of modern books dedicated to preserving some semblance of grammatical purity, advertising-speak and email have pretty well demolished punctuational discipline forever.

Nevertheless, I love Lynne Truss’s sensible definition of punctuation in her surprising bestseller Eats Shoots & Leavessubtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:”

“Best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.’ Isn’t the analogy with good manners perfect? Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. … As we shall see, the practice of ‘pointing’ our writing has always been offered in a spirit of helpfulness, to underline meaning and prevent awkward misunderstandings between writer and reader.”

It has often been pointed out that poor use of punctuation is one of the quickest ways to recognize awful – or at least sloppy – writing. My heart goes out to all the editors of the world who labour to round up herds of squiggles rampaging across the manuscripts before them, and coax them into the punctuation corral. So, to give myself a break from the hard work of writing an actual book, I’m going to do a little series of blog posts on punctuation – just for pure amusement.

My first topic is a eulogy, of sorts, for the dear, departed exclamation mark (or point). I miss it! Don’t you? Just a little bit?

It started out life with so much promise, or so the theory goes, back in the days when Latin was a spoken language. It was an expression of joy, intended to connote wonderment and admiration. How far the poor thing has fallen!

The exclamation point didn’t earn its own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970s. Before that, you had to type a period, then backspace, then type a straight apostrophe over top of the period. I’m old enough to remember actually having to do this. I certainly used fewer exclamation points as a result. It’s my theory that the seeds of the exclamation point’s demise began with this mechanical advancement in typography.

Easy keyboard access to “!!!!!” proliferated its use. Like a drug.

By the 1980s, the exclamation point was becoming ubiquitous, and in the 1986 edition of The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer (a companion to the better-known The Elements of Style by Strunk and White), six rules for its use are prescribed:

  1. Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
  2. If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
  3. Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
  4. When an exclamation is not emphatic, place a comma instead of an exclamation point after it. (Note: this is the only ‘rule’ that advises discretion in its use)
  5. Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
  6. An exclamation point is used after a command.

Today, many style guides have virtually reduced the rules for use to one: don’t. 

Even Wikipedia’s advice on usage warns, “Overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and devalues the mark’s significance.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” If he’d followed Margaret Shertzer’s rules, though, he would have written the first sentence as a command, with an exclamation point at the end of it.

In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writingthe master of direct, pared-down writing advises:

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

In their hilarious book How Not to Write a Novel, subtitled “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them – A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide,” authors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a whole section titled “I Mean This!! It’s Important!!!” to illustrate their advice about the exclamation point, which they describe as a graphical poke in the eye:

“The exclamation mark is the most commonly abused form of punctuation. While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts—and there is an epidemic—of unnecessary—em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment. 

“We understand that you are excited to be a novelist, but there are very few occasions when you should use an exclamation mark, and all of them are in dialogue. Even here they should be used sparingly, usually to indicate that a character is in fact shouting. … [With the frequent use of exclamation marks] the writing appears to be engaged in frantic hand-waving, straining every muscle to convince the reader that the action is important.”

If you really want to hear an editor rant about it, read this post by Erin Roof titled “Say no to exclamation points” on her interesting blog Grammar Party.

Need I say that literary agents also hate exclamation points? Almost nothing seems to curl their lips faster than encountering one on the page as they’re reading a few paragraphs of your manuscript – right in front of you – in a speed-date pitch at a writers conference. Just throw one at the end of an early sentence and then watch their faces. They won’t even say anything, but you know. You just know. That strained don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you look they give you is very likely a reaction to having been stabbed in the eye by an exclamation point.

Yes, the punctuation mark that began as an innocent and innovative expression of wonder has become the most reviled squiggle in literature. The hallmark of the amateur, the hack. Ridiculed by crude nicknames like a screamer, a gasper, a startler, a bang and a shriek.

And now it’s dead, chased from the page by literary do-gooders.

It’s sad. I know the exclamation point had its shortcomings and quirks – like all of us – but it was always a friend to me. It added a bit of a smile to electronic conversations (“Hi folks!” or “See ya later!”), and a little kick to the dramatic literature of yore (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”).

I will miss it!! Really!!!

But wait. Is it too soon to write an epitaph for the exclamation point? Perhaps I’ll let Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the last word. He’d like that. This quote cited in Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir sounds like Fyodor chewing out his editor:

“Every author has his own style and consequently his own grammatical rules. I put commas where I deem them necessary, and where I deem them unnecessary others must not put them! [And] remember that I never use superfluous commas: Never add or remove a single one!”

Take that, agents, editors and writing advice-givers everywhere!

I probably should have saved that quote for my future post about commas, but I couldn’t resist quoting Dostoyevsky’s use of exclamation points.

11 thoughts on “I miss the exclamation point!

  1. To get the point about overuse of exclamation points, read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade – the Phantom of the Opera as it could only happen on Discworld. It’s a great parody of the never use an exclamation point rule, as well. More seriously, I read posts and blogs with exclamation points in every other sentence and all I hear is an overdramatic, breathless teenager, and that’s exactly what killed it, not the punctuation point itself. I don’t agree with the “never use it except in dialogue or only once every 100,000 words (that’s about once per novel and never in a kid’s book!). There are places in narrative to use it, and it can be used more often, but it can be an easy way out. A writer should be able to get across the emotional emphasis without using exclamation points – but to virtually eliminate them? Nope. Middle ground, balance in all things. Oh, and the quote from Dostoyevsky? I agree, as long as the writer *really* knows their punctuation, which even I don’t. A good proofreader is worth her weight in gold. Trust me on this one.

    • Yes, I thought Elmore Leonard was being just a little chintzy with one exclamation point per book. I like the “How Not to Write” prescription of saving them mainly for literal shouting. Though, as you say, moderation should still prevail or a high volume argument would look like a forest of exclamation point trees.

  2. Diagraming sentences was part of my introduction to formal grammar. My young brain rejected the alien intrusion. To this day, I don’t understand formal grammar, though I can write and speak eloquently and precisely “by ear.” For years, I thought a dangling participle referred to old men who lurked around the school yard in raincoats, and I forget what it is within minutes of re-hearing Grammar Girl’s explanation. Humans don’t learn language by learning rules. They absorb what’s around them.

    Punctuation is a specialized body of rules that humans don’t learn to acquire language or the ability to write clearly or vividly. Periods are easy, and I use commas where I’d pause if speaking, except for the many instances where I instinctively know that it isn’t right. My instincts are pretty good, though I can’t explain them in grammatical jargon. A POX (or more precisely, a slow and painful death) ON ALL YOU RULES-OF-GRAMMAR FANATICS. YOUR REAL PASSION IS CALLING ATTENTION TO YOUR OWN VIRTUOSITY.

    Having said that without the exclamation point, I suggest another reason for its demise: modern technology. When people relied on the written word to convey or acquire information, or to express feeling, the substance or content of the writing itself conveyed underlying emotion (or its lack) in the one-on-one relationship between reader and writer. With modern communication technology, conveyers of information are competing with each other for the attention of readers/listeners/watchers, many of whom are doing other things (or doing nothing) and are not seeking to be recipients of content from the competing conveyers. Mass communication must shout, must be colorful and vivid, must grab(!) the recipient’s attention, or the target(!) recipient will pay not attention. We are victimized by snipers of content, so we dodge ubiquitous exclamation points to survive.

    With modern communication technology, formal communication is becoming more like informal communication. We write like we talk to each other, far more than we used to, and the point of convergence is closer to informal peer-to-peer communication than it is to formal communication. When I was a lawyer trying cases, I would pause, as if struggling to find the right word, so jurors would think I was sincere, or change thoughts in mid sentence, to appear as if I’d just had an insight, so they’d explore my reasoning along side me, instead of viewing the conclusion with skepticism. That wouldn’t have worked in my parent’s generation. Thus, Therefore ;-), as modern language rapidly changes, grammar and punctuation will change, and the status of rules of grammar (and punctuation) as an institution will undergo rapid change as well.

  3. You’re right, language changes follow cultural shifts, and the makers of rules about language are always playing catch-up. Since our culture’s communication styles and practices have been shifting at the lightspeed of technological change (not to mention the effects of globalization), the rule makers must feel a certain degree of despair. What to do? Start a new section in the dictionary for emoticons and text talk? Or retreat to a safe, WiFi-free zone, make a cup of tea and contemplate commas?

    I never did learn diagramming sentences. Thank god. It sounds too much like math to me. I’m totally a “by ear” writer, and a looker-upper when in doubt. However, as a creative director for many years I spent countless hours editing and proofing everything from proposals to communication strategies to brochures (often in the middle of the night, or in a mad panic while the courier stood at the door waiting for something I was working on). So at this point in my writing life, I’m in Dostoyevsky’s camp when it comes to commas.

    However, I admit to sometimes indulging myself with an intemperate number of exclamation points in emails.

  4. SILK: Hope I didn’t offend you with my rant. It was early in the morning, I was well caffeinated, and diagraming sentences opened up a volcano that had been dormant inside me for decades. It all just roared out, and I posted it like a physical exclamation point, only to re-think everything later in the morning, when the coffee wore off. Please forgive.

  5. Silk, what a great post!
    And I shall make no apology for my use of the exclamation mark here. It is meant to communicate my enthusiasm and strong feelings for this particular piece of writing.
    I am not a breathless teenager, but a middle aged lover of life, and I would be the first to admit to my overuse of the “soon to be extinct” exclamation mark.
    (OOPS, I nearly put one there as well).
    However, I shall admit to the reader that even I have found myself inwardly cringing whilst re-reading some of my musings, suddenly aware of how many times I use the mark. Quite astounding.
    ( Ha, I wasn’t even tempted there ).
    Surely I can’t be so enthusiastic about so many things? Heaven forbid.
    (OK, now I am really holding myself back).
    I should not like to become an exclamation mark snob, just like I enjoy a good glass of red wine especially if it is under a tenner!!!
    (Oh no! I am starting to slip up…………)
    Whilst I will do my up-most to keep it under control in future, I would hate it to go the way of the Dodo!
    (….sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one ).
    Louise
    PS one way of curbing usage of the exclamation mark is to get a new keyboard. Now every time I hit the !, I get the @………………

  6. Pingback: Punctuation Marks That Make You Say Hm? | Dawn-Reneé Rice

  7. Pingback: How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark | crime thriller girl

  8. Pingback: Looking for exclamations(!) | Emily's Tea Leaves

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