Tip 19: Exclamation Points
One of the obvious challenges with written communication is that it requires compensating for the nuances that verbal discourse allows. Responses to such limitations as the inability to use body language and tonal inflections range from deep introspection that yields new ways of explaining oneself to holding down the shift and numeral 1 keys to produce an exclamation point (or two or three). The urge to emphasize snippets of simplistic text in lieu of further linguistic illumination is evidently quite strong, because exclamation points could almost be called ubiquitous.
One of the most common places you see punctuation’s version of elevated volume is in advertising. The runner-up is e-mails (to which I also lump text messages). Exclamation points are rare in professional writing because the two are largely incompatible. According to Merriam-Webster Online, the mark is used to “indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling,” which is often associated with amateur-ishness. Other negative attributions are laziness and aggrandizement.
On the positive side, it seems to make users happy, serving as a succinct yet fulfilling expression of excitement, enthusiasm, and endorsement. For some it’s even mandatory given certain circumstances. A prime example of such a conviction is in an episode from the television comedy Seinfeld, in which the character of Elaine gets in a fight with her boyfriend because he chose not to use an exclamation point in a phone message. (For the full benefit, see this video.)
Clearly the decision to use an exclamation point is subjective, like so many communication tools. However, as someone who evaluates writing for a living, I believe it is important to think about the impression you will leave on readers to help determine if your punctuation choice is appropriate. And a little extra thought about how you can most clearly convey your message will likely be appreciated.
If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of exclamation point use, you’ll probably enjoy the following two articles:
And I’d like to extend a special thanks to Jason Love, who graciously granted me permission to use his irresistibly clever depiction of anthropomorphized punctuation marks. Check out his Web site (at http://www.jasonlove.com/) for more unexpected places in life to find humor.
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