I’ve always hated the exclamation point. It’s abrasive, booming, as dangerous as a billy club or baseball bat. I find that people use it as a crutch, the way adverbs or the dialogue tags like “quip” and “mocked” are employed to compensate for bad writing.
At work, there is a woman who uses the following as her signature: Thanks! Sara. I picture this woman with a phony smile, holding some pompoms, doing a cheer to extend her gratitude. Thanks exclamation point should be saved for when I give her my spare kidney, not when I agree to set up a meeting. Thanks exclamation point translates in my head into THANKS or Thank you very very much. It should be used sparingly, not as a signature on every email sent.
Also at work, I’ve been revising copy for opt-in offers in which the user checks a box next to a phrase like: Yes! I want to receive weekly updates by email. I find the use of this exclamation point horrifying. Can you imagine anyone exclaiming, Yes! Send me crap every week; Yes! Put me on a list I can never get off of; Yes! SPAM, junk mail, please, please, I want more. But the horrifying part is that to do my copywriting job well, I should probably keep the exclamation points in these opt-in offers, even add more of them to convince the customer that this offer is really exciting. Whatever happened to subliminal messaging? Could anyone really fall for the obvious false sentiment of an exclamation point?
Then there is the text messaging culture which contributes to most people under the age of 25 thinking an exclamation point is a period, but for something that is important. And when you are under 25, everything is important. The subject line on a recent email from Kristina read: Reminder! Parties! One that’s tonight!
Three exclamation points in a row is blatant overuse. Two in a row is overuse. The guidelines for a magazine I’m writing for say no more than one exclamation points per article. That’s generous, not to mention problematic that a maximum is even stated. I conducted an informal survey amongst my writing friends and one person said he uses the exclamation point about once every six months. That sounds about right.
I gave Kristina a hard time about her exclamation point overuse. The good thing about dating a writer is that she takes punctuation seriously. The bad thing is that she will argue with me about punctuation, use my own words against me: You say things on your blog like, “and then Kristina yelled, ‘its a bat. rabies. rabies.” um. hello? yelling requires exclamation points!” She mocked my improperly punctuated yelling in a monotonous drone, “bats. rabies. rabies.”
Kristina has a point. It is now that I must confess that I’ve never ever used an exclamation point, and there are cases when they are necessary. The problem is not that I hated them, but that I was prejudiced against them. I thought of exclamation points as tools of the overeager, signs of laziness, and I associated them with the annoying inflections of Valley Girls.
After years of boycotting the exclamation point, of judging it without understanding it, I’m reconsidering its potential. The good thing about having friends who are writers is that they will debate the merits of punctuation at a party, and later give me handouts to prove their points. That is how I received the Dennis Johnson story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” I’m told it will change the way I think about the exclamation point. I’m ready to be blown away!