Recently I posted a blurt to social media where the opening sentence ended with an exclamation mark. I’ve been regretting my punctuation choice ever since. Even my husband looked at me, perplexed, when he read it. “Really? Where did you publish this?” Because I’m not that person. I don’t do perky and vivacious.
The cheery salute injected an artificial bonhomie at odds with my real voice. I don’t know why I used it. Maybe I’m spending too much time on marketing copy, where the exclamation mark is pervasive. It’s a shame, because falling back on them for emphasis is not good practice. Let me tell you why.
Exclamation marks are…
As a reader I find them patronising, as if the writer is dictating how I should feel about what I’ve been told. An exclamation mark adds a squeal to the text. It’s irritating.
Like the red version used to mark emails of ‘high importance’, they won’t earn the traction the writer is hoping for. They’re loud and obnoxious. They lack imagination. If a writer wants attention they should impress with a clever turn of phrase. Dazzle with ideas. Elevate with lyricism. Concluding a thought with a pointy stick won’t guarantee attention.
At best ambivalent, exclamation marks are more likely to confuse than enlighten the reader.
What exactly are they meant to convey? Is it to underscore the importance of what’s been written? Do they scream excitement, or surprise, or fun? Is the author being sardonic? Or sarcastic? Often it’s hard to tell. And where there’s confusion misunderstanding will follow.
If good writing is about showing rather than telling, then a good sentence doesn’t need to end with fireworks for emotion. Choose verbs wisely and paint a picture with the facts. Don’t just slap a few words together and poke the reader with an exclamation mark, hoping punctuation will do what the text hasn’t. Like we say to stroppy toddlers when they drop to the floor and wail for attention – “use your words”.
Is this punctuation mark a modern evil?
Once upon a time we had to work much harder to make our (exclamation) point. The now-overworked key didn’t exist on the typewriter until the 1970s. Before then, authors were forced to use a period then back space for an apostrophe to add cheap drama to the page.
But whining about them isn’t novel. F Scott Fitzgerald likened exclamation marks to laughing at yourself. Seasoned journalists called them screamers.
These days it’s oh-so-easy to fall back on punctuation for punch, with a quick left thumb double tap reaching the shortcut-for-chipper on our smartphones.
Please stop it. Like flared trousers and the cartridge cassette, exclamation marks have had their day.