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Notes on Exclamation Points

Take Those Underpants Off Your Head!

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Notes on Exclamation Points

"Cut out all these exclamation points," F. Scott Fitzgerald once told an excitable young author. "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

Since it first popped up in the 14th century, the exclamation point (punctus admirativus or exclamativus) has generally been regarded as the hot-headed punk in the school of punctuation. Favored by advertisers, preteens, and writers of ransom notes, the exclamation point is less a mark of punctuation than an oratorical cue or a typographical shriek--in newspaper slang, a "screamer."

As a result, most professional writers view exclamations as a bad habit to break or an awkward stage to outgrow. Novelist Elmore Leonard recommends setting a strict quota: "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose."

In Guardian Style (2007), editor David Marsh exclaims simply, "do not use!"

Other style mavens are only a touch more tolerant of the mark. Theodore Bernstein's observation is typical:

The exclamation point . . . is used sparingly in most writing because the statements that require it--those containing a strong emotional charge--are themselves relatively rare and because omitting the mark often produces a kind of understatement that is strong in itself.
(The Careful Writer, The Free Press, 1965)

In "Exclamation! etc.," essayist Lewis Thomas insists that all writers "should be compelled, by law if necessary, to submit professional credentials and undergo a waiting period of seven days before placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence." Regulation is necessary, he says, to prevent the mark from spreading:

The problem is that once you allow one or two in, they tend to multiply, scattering themselves everywhere, expostulating, sounding off, making believe that phrases have a significance beyond what the words themselves are struggling to say. They irritate the eyes. They are, as well, pretentious, self-indulgent and in the end almost always pointless. If a string of words is designed to be an astonishment, a veritable terror of a string, the words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point at the end like a Toyota salesman on TV.
(Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher, Little, Brown and Company, 1990)
As for multiple exclamation points, the less said the better. Novelist Terry Pratchett calls them a "sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

Still, neglecting the exclamation point altogether can be costly. A few years ago, in a text-messaging contest at the North Dakota State Fair, the speediest cell phone user had to settle for second place when judges discovered a critical omission in his text. Though Kevin Taylor had correctly tapped in "I hope I win the grand prize of $1,000 so I can buy a new phone," he had left off the exclamation point after the final word, "Whoo!" It cost him $800.

And I probably don't have to tell you that upon discovering his mistake, Taylor exclaimed, "Oh, no!"

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