Friday, May 1, 2009


I set up a Facebook account several days ago, and though I'm finding it quite addictive (what a brilliant scheme for exposing people to advertisements), I'm still working on my tone. I think I tend to come across more tersely and snarkily than I intend.

I think this essay helps get at why that is. It's about changing attitudes toward the exclamation point:

"Cut out all those exclamation marks," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes." It isn't actually. When one German starts a letter to another with "Lieber Franz!" they are merely obeying cultural norms, not laughing at their own jokes. Nor is chess notation, which teems with exclamation marks, especially funny. No matter. Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half. In the ninth book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Eric, one of the characters insists that "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." In Maskerade, the 18th in the series, another character remarks: "And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads. That's because in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. 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'."


Liz said...

i love this topic. I think the exclamation point is important for internet communication - IMing or email because tone can be misread so easily. at the same time, i still cringe when i see students use it more than once in a paper (and tell them as much).

a topic still to be explored: why do women use exclamation points more than men? is excitement not manly?

framiko said...

One of my colleagues speculated that it is related to penis envy.

Gloria Bilchik said...

"Exclamation points are wonderful!" she exclaimed. Well, someone had to take the bait and write a comment larded with exclamation points. So, I'm doing it!

But seriously...I see a parallel between exclamation points and the Yiddish word, "oy." Leo Rosten, a noted Jewish essayist and humorist, once published a book entitled "The Joys of Yiddish." As I recall, he included an extensive explication of the meaning of "oy." Similarly, Jackie Mason, the renowned [and sometimes reviled] Jewish comedian, has a section on "Oy Vey" in his book, "How to Talk Jewish." Oy can mean many things--from unmitigated joy to an expression of physical pain.

Like "oy," the exclamation point is a many-splendored punctuation mark. It's excitement! It's joy! It's surprise! It's bemusement! It's astonishment! It's disbelief! It's insistence! And so much more! You figure it out!

I'm also told, by a reliable source and author of this blog, that the exclamation point has found a new use as the middle digit in an on-line emoticon used to indicate the proverbial digital wave! Ask Frank about this!