It’s one of those rules I feel like I’ve always known: Don’t use exclamation points in writing. I’ve always heard this… and I’ve pretty much always ignored it. With the obvious exception of technical, non-fiction, and research writing, I have not ever heard a valid argument for completely disregarding this useful punctuation mark. There is, of course, a line between useful and overused, but I am a definite fan of the exclamation point in fiction writing, emails, and of course, blogs.
Not too long ago, I discovered an article by Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian on this neglected (and sometimes maligned) punctuation mark. Jeffries looks at the perception and use of the exclamation point both in writing and the real world (did you know there’s a town in Quebec called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!? I didn’t before I read his article) and how this has changed, especially over the last century. For example, he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of books like The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise) who said, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” True? Jeffries and I vote no. This would only be true if you use the exclamation point after a joke. Half of the times I use an exclamation point, what I’m saying isn’t intended to be funny at all. Does this punctuation mark automatically convey humor? Apparently Mr. Fitzgerald thought so. But he wasn’t the only one with a dim view of the subject.
“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose,” declared Elmore Leonard (author of 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre). Really? Since many books never reach the 100,000 word mark, that means you should find maybe 1 exclamation point in most books. Seems a little stingy to me. And a little silly. I agree that overuse can dull the effect of the punctuation, but by using this logic, characters in danger would only exclaim once. Someone shocked by the appearance of a bear may not be able to scream because those characters in danger earlier already used up the exclamation point quota. How much sense does that make?
Jeffries uses these and other opinions to help round out his article which is an amazingly thorough look at the subject, especially concerning the advent of the digital world and how exclamation points help convey emotions that just don’t come through in emails. He quotes David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home. In the article, Jeffries says:
They write, for instance, “‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event … ‘Thanks!!!!'”, they contend, “is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’.”
And he has a point. I know there have been times where I’ve misconstrued the tone of an email because of punctuation (or lack thereof). The same can be said of books. Tone is something the reader supplies in their heads and if you don’t provide the right clues, your characters may not be interpreted the way you intended and a character who was supposed to be cheeky and amusing could become snarky and aggressive. Jeffries also points out that technology has always played a part in the structure, style, and usage of punctuation. He says,
It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that’s what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at – ooh, I don’t know – the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe. Which is enough to take the joie de vivre out of anyone’s literary style. In the springs following the advent of the manual typewriter’s exclamation marks, typed paeans to seasonal budding loveliness teemed with exclamation marks. Or at least I hypothesise that they did. I wasn’t paying attention at the time.
The ultimate verdict? Don’t throw it around, but don’t ignore it, either. The exclamation point can be useful! I swear!