Monday, May 4, 2009


It's not often that you see an entire article in The Guardian about punctuation, specifically about the exclamation point. Or, should I say, the exclamation point!

I used to never use exclamation points. Sr. Francis Xavier, my composition teacher in 7th and 8th grade, frowned on them when used inappropriately. And in her opinion they were seldom appropriate. I thought that was because I was being taught by an ancient nun. But apparently she had read

Fowler's Modern English Usage, in which it is maintained: "Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational."

And if had doubted her, look at what these great novelists think about 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."

But ever since I started blogging I find myself using them all the time. Apparently I'm not alone. Since the dawn of the internet, everyone is using them. Everyone!

But why?

Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at - ooh, I don't know - the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe.

OMG!! I remember that. I feel so old.

Or maybe it's because so many of us on the tubes are women and we're expected to be friendly (or maybe we just are friendly). An exclamation point is a sign of friendliness. Or so they say. Whoever they are.

They also say the ellipses are making a comeback ...