Silk’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 & Leaves, subtitled “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:
- Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
- If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
- Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
- 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)
- Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
- 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 Writing, the 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.