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Red Pen Diaries: Exclamation Nation

Everybody knows there are rules regarding punctuation. This article isn't about them.

I'm on a lot of e-mail lists; a great many people feel I should be kept abreast of developments at their companies, career milestones of the artists they represent, legislative or electoral triumphs and outrages, and too much more. And though I find some of the news they herald noteworthy, more often than not they compensate for mundane content with an inappropriate, nay, giddy level of enthusiasm. The primary means of expressing this overwrought intensity? The exclamation point.

Say what you will about this textual yelp in the reader's ear, this megaphone for interjections, this visual volume knob beloved of barkers, impresarios and publicists; sometimes it is entirely the right touch. And let's face it, different people have differing levels of tolerance for the grandiloquent little devil. But most temperate readers agree that the exclamation point is a bit like hot sauce — a little goes a long way; too much burns out all the flavor.

Case in, er, point: An e-mail announcement with five, count 'em, five of these suckers in the subject line. The message was about a conference call. You read right, a freakin' conference call. I sat and stared at that manic missive for a while, wondering why I felt so scarred by it. Perhaps it was because I imagined having to yank the receiver from my ear as the participants shouted their pleasantries: "How are you, Frank?!!!!" "I'm just OK, Monica!!!! How are you?!!!!" But more likely I recoiled because the sender was gleefully transmitting his clumsiness as a communicator while inviting me (and countless others) to chat.

The National Punctuation Day website notes that the exclamation point is "used in writing after an exclamation or interjection, expressing strong emotion or astonishment, or to indicate a command," adding — without apparent irony — "AVOID OVERUSE!" (National Punctuation Day is Sept. 24; mark your calendar for '09.) I confess that there are times when I think even a single exclamation point amounts to "overuse."

Would it be wrong to suggest that you regard the exclamation point as a prized bottle of Bordeaux, to be poured only on a special occasion? Or that you ration it, using a maximum of one per message? Or that you use language sufficiently descriptive to convey your meaning and forgo the exclamation point altogether?

A dear friend of Editorial Emergency has lamented on more than one occasion the punctuation abuse of a woman in her office, a person in a position of authority whose e-mails are festooned with exclamation points. She wields them like tiny cudgels, urging her colleagues to action with a typographical cattle prod when a gentle period or unaccompanied question mark would do. Our friend is looking for a new job. Coincidence? You be the judge.

If you've already typed one exclamation point and your finger is poised over the key, ready for a second go, stop, drop and roll — and consider what an exclamation is. Per Merriam-Webster.com:

1 : a sharp or sudden utterance
2 : vehement expression of protest or complaint

Do you really intend your utterance to be sharp or sudden? Is vehemence sincerely what you're after? Why, exactly, are you so worked up?

As you know, we're here to help, so I've taken the liberty of rating some declarative exclamations:

  • I asked Julia to marry me, and she said yes! (appropriate)
  • We're going to Hawaii next month! (marginal)
  • I'm bored at work! (unnecessary)
  • Traffic was really bad today! (superfluous)
  • We've updated our website! (just plain irritating)

Now, the next time you're inclined to deploy a phalanx of exclamation points in your messaging, please ask yourself: How loud do you really need to be? I'm sitting right here.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 5th 2009, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Jackie R. (Fresno, CA)
Oops - very guilty (overcoming inclination to hit the exclamation key). Is this a widely held viewpoint? I'm seriously considering mending my ways. I suffer a continuous state of enthusiasm and those little guys are one way I express that, never thinking I might be offending - which I definitely do not want to do. I appreciate this article. (once again resisting the temptation)
Monday January 5th 2009, 6:04 AM
Comment by: Perri C. (Melbourne Australia)
Posted the wrong comment, meant to be 5 stars (ie loved it) not 1 star. And I have refrained from using an exclamation point to emphasise my point.
So point taken.
Monday January 5th 2009, 6:08 AM
Comment by: Dorothy C. (Tehachapi, CA)
Finally, the exclamation point has been put in its proper place.
Monday January 5th 2009, 9:48 AM
Comment by: John M.
I am curious as to what your opinion might be of those who use adjectives in the place of an exclamation point to show strong emotion. A case in point, the word "freakin" used euphemistically or the "f" word itself considered and used by many to express a state of emotion unsurpassed by any other available words and far beyond the reach of any marks of punctuation used individually or in combination.
Monday January 5th 2009, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Paul B. (Henderson, NV)
I am a big fan of proper punctuation. But I believe e-mail appropriately, if annoyingly, requires punctuation evolution. Better some dumbing down here than those awful emoticons. Perhaps your corrections should carry the additional suggestions of solid punctuation use in an e-mail. In this case, what would better (quick and easy) communicate the enthusiasm, aggression, retardation, scoring, etc.?

Thanks.
Monday January 5th 2009, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Wordsmith (Carbondale, IL)
In journalism school, we were issued three exclamation points to use over the course of our careers. Reading overzealous placement of this punctuation would set my department chairman off into a fiery, passionate rant about its uselessness.
Nearly 30 years later and after killing two of them in ledes about a surprise election victory and a national title won by a tiny, country bumpkin school, I still have one alive.
Here's a hearty "kudos," sans exclamation point, to Simon and Julia for their reminder.
Monday January 5th 2009, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Elisa B. (Addison, TX)
It was with a chuckle that I read this intelligent commentary on the overuse of punctual hot sauce - then saw "Thanks for voting! underneath. I gave it "5 chilis."
Monday January 5th 2009, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Christine D. (Halifax Canada)
Most often, in casual text, the exclamation point is meant to connote celebration. Is it okay to put a little "whoo-hoo" in parenthesis instead of the offending exclamation point?
Monday January 5th 2009, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Joanna M G. (Kansas City, MO)
I am a slightly boisterous person, and cheerful over-user of the exclamation point. Shall try to wean myself away from the umph of !, but slowly so as not to alarm my freinds and cohorts.

Thanks for the punctuation reminder.
Monday January 5th 2009, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Sean H. (Mill Valley, CA)
I find that my emails to friends usually have one higher point of intensity, be it humor, sarcasm or disbelief, just as a musical piece has a crescendo. My personal rule is to use one exclamation point per letter in that spot.
Monday January 5th 2009, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Marc F. (Santa Monica, CA)
I am a TV writer and very mindful of "exclams"it always gives actors license to... overact!
Monday January 5th 2009, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Martha H.
You got me!!!
Monday January 5th 2009, 4:41 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Thanks for your thoughtful article. The examples at the end bring it home.

I was also amused by the memorable name you have for your agency. I was puzzled, however, by the apparent lack of agreement between the number of authors and the first person pronouns used throughout the article.
Monday January 5th 2009, 5:39 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
I love this article because it brought to light how egregiously I use the exclamation point. I'm really aching to put an exclamation point at the end of the previous sentence, but I shall refrain.

One thing that I thought was mildly funny and ironic is that Simon and Julia cited the Merriam-Webster dictionary instead of Visual Thesaurus. If they had cited VT, one of the definitions that appears for exclamation is "an exclamatory rhetorical device". In a lot of cases I like to use exclamation points for effect and not out of necessity. Take grading exams as an example. I'd like to think that every time I wrote "Excellent!" on top of an exam that earned an A, it meant a little more than just a plain "Excellent."
Monday January 5th 2009, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Lois R. (Baldwin, NY)
Just thank you.
Tuesday January 6th 2009, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent. = A, Excellent! = A+
Wednesday January 7th 2009, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Ahh, Simon and Julia, y'all are takin' the fun outta written conversations, i.e., posts, blogs, emails, etcetera. Formal English just isn't the norm for these media...well, most email at work being one exception that comes to mind. Without the added communicative power of body language in these body-less interactions, some of us feel downright 'nekid' if we don't use these new-fangled forms of communicative 'slang.' I have no intention of curtailing my use of them. However, point well taken that excessive use of "!" is really annoying. My precriptivist grammarian friends are forever frothing over the casualness of my email..."phatt!" to all of 'em *G*.
Wednesday January 7th 2009, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Julia of Editorial Emergency, here. Thanks, all, for your comments on "Red Pen Diaries: Exclamation Nation." Simon and I are always very interested in what you have to say. Speaking of Simon and me, our VT pieces are bylined jointly because even though only one of us is the primary author -- thus the first-person point of view cited above by Catwalker -- we almost always collaborate to produce the finished product. For instance, Simon wrote this baby, but I'm the one with the friend who's ready to quit her job over her colleague's exclamation-point abuse, and I confess to being the one who always brings Merriam-Webster into the conversation (a holdover from my days in reference publishing). We understand Catwalker's confusion and hope this clears it up. Happy New Year to our dear fellow words nerds, and thank you again for reading and commenting.
Wednesday January 7th 2009, 10:52 PM
Comment by: Michelle A. (Auckland New Zealand)
Guilty as charged. Have decided to put a cap on the "screamer"
Thursday January 8th 2009, 4:24 PM
Comment by: Joy-Mari C. (Cape Town South Africa)
Why couldn't my high school teachers warn me about this? I only amended my evil ways in 2006-7.
Saturday January 10th 2009, 9:59 PM
Comment by: Kathy M. (Grants Pass, OR)
While I agree with the authors regarding the overuse of the exlamation point, one might be tempted to ask that they explore the improper use of quotation marks.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Nadine T.
I agree with the authors.
Unfortunately, this is something that I can see creeping into marketing literature in French too, probably under the influence of US marketing methods.
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 4:21 PM
Comment by: JoAnna T. (Rock Rapids, IA)
Love it! But duly noted that the poor exclamation point has been vastly overused. (kind of like writers, coffee, and trendy large framed glasses) and I understand your point. But as long as Marketing firms continue to write emails, it will never change. Why? Because we want your attention! And periods are just so boring, however grammatically correct they are. Along with dumbing down copy, this also is an essential tool to marketing writing.

Case in point....who would want to see this?

Hurry. Our 15% off Sale ends today. Order now. (I consciously had to stop myself from using it.)

So no matter how much you hate it, the exclamation point is here to stay, even if it gives you shutters similar to a rifle report. (that said I am being more conscious about how many I use now - thanks to your reminder.) Keep up the good articles!
Thursday February 12th 2009, 4:37 PM
Comment by: kelly G.
Bravo. Hear, hear. Huzzah. Hold the hot sauce.
Saturday February 14th 2009, 5:49 PM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
At school, many, many years ago, my English teacher used to call them "shriek marks", insisting they be used rarely. It's interesting the shriek mark is losing much of its shriek effect (except in promos) and is now being used to indicate, among others, the "nudge nudge wink wink" and "you wouldn't believe" and "don't tell anyone, but --" and "I'm being ironic here" modes that employ subtle changes in tone and voice and facial expression when expressed face-to-face. Although much of this work is now being done by the emoticons, of course. AM
Saturday February 14th 2009, 6:01 PM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
Should have added to the above: Those dreadful, intrusive emoticons (shriek mark) AM
Thursday April 30th 2009, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Larry S. (Savoy, IL)
I almost wept while reading this article.

Finally. Someone feels my pain.

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Simon and Julia's lighthearted look at text messaging.
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"Literally" can add extra oomph, but beware of pushing it too far.