What do you think when you receive correspondence liberally strewn with exclamation points? Do you think you are reading something from an elementary aged student? a teenager? Though the overuse and abuse of exclamation marks had crossed my mind previously, I hadn’t really thought too much about it until a recent hike with my family. While on vacation visiting extended family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, we hiked a few trails, including three trails at Chimney Rock.
Ascending stairways we were surprised by the switchbacks but observed interesting geological formations and noticed we encountered fewer people (good thing since the path was narrow now) than we had on our previous climb with the family. Up, up, up we climbed with my eleven year old in the lead turning and stopping often to offer words of encouragement that we were “almost there.” That’s the tricky thing about this switchback climb—we thought we were almost there the whole time. I began to ponder the name Exclamation Point and the fact that I should have known the hike would be steep, with such a name.
Alas, we made it to the top and my eleven year old agreed to have his picture made with me—saying it was worth it since I hiked all the way up with him.
Let’s think about exclamation points. Generally we use them as punctuation to emphasize a point or to command something, and we are taught to use them sparingly in writing. So, what’s been happening in electronic communications? Some contend we utilize exclamation points to soften our writing and convey a more friendly tone. Does it work? Maybe. Does it impress the reader? That depends upon what or who we are trying to impress. If I am trying to convey a professional tone, I would argue that it doesn’t actually impress anyone to see an abuse of exclamation marks. When we overuse them, it takes away the power of using them for emphasis. However, if I am emailing or using social media informally, exclamation points can be an efficient way to soften the tone or convey excitement. Though, I still try to monitor my use of them.
Following the hike with my family, I decided to take it upon my nerdy self to ask around and to analyze punctuation use and/or abuse for a week. Here’s what I did.
1) I posted this statement to friends on Facebook: friends, especially writer and reader friends, please share your thoughts on exclamation points. What you see below is what a few of my Facebook friends, names removed, shared.
THEY MAKE THE UNIVERSE GO ROUND JUST LIKE CAPSLOCK ENTHUSIASM!!!!! No, but seriously. No one ever needs more than one at a time, and they should be used sparingly. (And never in conjunction with a question mark.) There are other ways to write in a way which creates a feeling or voice of excitement or enthusiasm. Also, if you are writing something at a professional level, you'd do better to leave them off (unless it's fiction dialogue). I think, though, in emails and social media someone's constant use of !!! can be overlooked as just a part of their way of writing.
Exclamation points will be my downfall, I'm afraid. When corresponding by email or text, I know the reader cannot see me to observe how excited or passionate I am about my subject. I add exclamation points to try to convey my emotions, but find that too many of my sentences end with them.
They should be used very sparingly. In fiction, only in dialogue. In non-fiction, almost never. There is no situation in any writing where more than one should be used. If you need them often, you should work on being a better writer.
We tend to use them too much.
If a person lives through a heart attack the worst kind and it is a true story is that good enough? (This one is from my mom who is writing about a recent “widow maker” heart attack she miraculously survived).
An indication of passion about a situation or topic. Tend to be overused! Lol :)
I analyzed exclamation point use in my recent copy of The New Republic magazine, July 12, 2012. It was the perfect issue to conduct this little analysis because an entire article was devoted to language use and technology. In How Technology Remakes Language by John McWhorter, there are 5 exclamation points in a one page article. Those exclamation points worked without lessening the quality of writing because the subject matter of the article was informal and the author made a valid point about the trends in language that come and go just as he urged uptight readers to “hashtag chill out."
3) I wrote one paragraph of this blog post utilizing some of what I learned during two activities stated above. You can see it here-- same words, different punctuation. Which version of the paragraph version do you prefer—the one above or the one here?
Ascending stairways we were SURPRISED by the switchbacks but observed interesting geological formations and noticed we encountered fewer people (GOOD thing since the path was narrow now) than we had on our previous climb with the family! Up, up, up we climbed with my eleven year old in the lead turning and stopping often to offer words of encouragement that we were “ALMOST there!” That’s the TRICKY thing about this switchback climb—we thought we were ALMOST there the whole time. I began to ponder the name Exclamation Point and the fact that I SHOULD have known the hike would be STEEP, with such a name!!!
So, readers, what do YOU [sic] think?