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Oh, no! Were we wrong about exclamation marks?

headshot excited girl with glasses isolated on grey background

Psst!

I know your little secret.

Come closer.

Ready?

You use exclamation marks.

There! I said it. And in case you’re feeling embarrassed, let me state for the record: I use them too.

We all do. In our social media posts. In emails. Texts. In those posters we stick up in the kitchen asserting our property rights over the organic vanilla and lemongrass yoghurt in the fridge.

Yet this benighted punctuation mark has earned itself the worst of all reputations.

Blogger Henneke Duistermat has called them the hallmark of the pushy salesman.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 08.34.01

I myself have ranted, at length, on their evils. On courses, and in books like Write to Sell.

Newspaper sub-editors used to refer to the exclamation mark as the “dog’s dick”.

But are they really so bad? If they are, how did they come about in the first place? As part of our written language, they were unlikely to have been dreamt up in the first instance simply to be reviled.

Let’s look at three perfectly acceptable uses of the exclamation mark.

After exclamations.

“Holy shit!”

“Oh my God!”

“Help!”

After certain emphatic sentences in the imperative mood.

“You’re fired!”

“Get lost!”

“Save me!”

In place names. OK, place name.

“Westward Ho!”

Fowler’s Modern Usage, surely one of the careful writer’s bibles (though not “bibles” or, indeed, Bibles) asserts that, “Not to use a mark of exclamation is sometimes wrong: How they laughed., instead of How they laughed!, is not English [my italics]. Wow!

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most damning, quotation about exclamation marks is F Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The exclamation mark is the sound of the writer applauding himself”.

This is often shortened to “literary canned laughter”, but the meaning is clear.

It’s the punctuation equivalent of the “d’yageddit?” elbow in the ribs after a not-very-funny joke is punted your way by a hopeful comic. The “ba-dum-tisch” of the vaudeville drummer to emphasise another flabby punchline.

And, of course, it has been used and abused for decades, possibly centuries, by generation after generation of hack writers, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to tabloid journalists and pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap advertisers, aided and abetted by their copywriter lackeys.

Naturally, when confronted with a headline that reads, in all its lame glory:

Exciting pensions news!

we can be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back and identifying the exclamation mark as yet further proof that it’s the tool of, well, tools.

But how about a headline like this:

“I can’t believe it. I won a million pounds!”

Would that be as strong and as convincing, if rendered thus:

“I can’t believe it. I won a million pounds.”

Somehow it looks flat, bordering on the sarcastic, in fact.

The real problem, and the one for which writers like Henneke and I propose such draconian solutions as “NO EXCLAMATION MARKS!”, is lazy writing itself.

If the best way you can dramatise a special offer on your office furniture is to write,

“Executive chair in real leather – now only £159!”

then you had better hand in your “copywriter” badge and get a job as a fairground barker.

But how about this classic, from Raymond Rubicam?

Scan

Is that exclamation mark really all that bad? Was Rubicam “sleazy”? Or trying, somehow, to pull the wool over our eyes about the true appeal of Lifesavers? I’m not sure.

But hey! What do I know?

Disagree violently? Agree, with reservations? Leave a comment!

Categories: Advertising copywriting, Business-to-business, Grammar, and Social media.

5 Responses to Oh, no! Were we wrong about exclamation marks?

  • Charlotte
    July 7, 2015

    Another correct use of exclamation marks is for the vocative. There is a great sign near where I live that says, “Parents! Please look out for your children in the car park.”

  • rentaquill
    July 7, 2015

    Andy – you’re right; exclamation marks do get a bum deal. But the fact of the matter is, they didn’t get their own key on a typewriter until about 1970: I can’t track down the first letter-banger that had one, I’ve tried and failed. Many times. Before that chilling moment in time, you had to type a full stop and then pop an apostrophe above it. I also wonder if that’s where our modern-day glut-of-tuts came from … but I digress.

    Exclamation marks themselves came into being when Latin scholars started stacking phonemes: a lazy fella’s early Tetris, really. The Latin word ‘io’ means ‘exclamation of joy’ – and had great precedence for use as a suffixial in sentence. ‘Dicit debeam solvere pro cerevisia cras. Io.’

    Abbreviated further, on a really last day, we put the i above the o, thereby creating the ubiquituous harbinger of doom and delight that we know and love today.

    !

    The other grandiose example: scholars used the word questio – ‘I question this’ – to, well, to show a query really. Again, they were frustrated at the time spent illuminating muscripts rather than propping up the bar in Mother Martha’s Mead Shack … the ‘questio’ was abbreviated to qo, which was then condensed further into a lowercased q on top of an o. The o shrank further still, the q became a squiggle – thus we have ‘?’.

    However. Comma.

    If people like playing by the rules, then Margaret Shertzer’s ‘Elements of Grammar’ are good rules by which to play. I cite them infrequently at People Who Moan About Apostrophes. The book, per se, is a sibling to Strunk and White’s better-known The Elements of Style, and has six goods rules for using the little beasties appropriately:

    1. Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
    2. If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
    3. Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
    4. When an exclamation is not emphatic, place a comma instead of an exclamation point after it.
    5. Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
    6. And an exclamation point should be used after a command, always.

    Dornford Yates is a good reference point if you’d like to see exclamation marks used relatively well. Me, personally? I don’t mind the odd io, now and then.

    That said, I do like Eric’s stance on the matter of abominations piled up, one after the other: ‘Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.’ The much-missed Mr Pratchett’s characters had a way of summing things up rather neatly. I seem to recall that one of them also said, ‘All those exclamation marks? Five, exclamation marks in a row? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.’

    For my mind, well-written elegant prose can usually negate the need to slap your reader in the face with a bish-bash-bosh of a punctuation mark. I use them sparsely. When I do, it’s more likely to be with an intent to disturb, shock, annoy, frustrate, irritate, warn my reader of an impending law suite, or intimate the orgasm that has come to pass, so as to speak.

    The jury’s out, as to whether or not I’m a fan.

  • Katie Q
    July 13, 2015

    Like wine and chocolate, I bloody love them. But they’re best used in moderation. Top post!

  • Greg Jackson
    January 18, 2016

    Like many literary ‘tools’ I don’t think you can ascribe black and white rules to their use.
    This particularly goes for copywriters. If an exclamation mark adds power to your copy – and makes it more likely to achieve what it’s supposed to – then go for it.
    It’s undoubtedly overused. But surely that’s an advantage to those who use them sparingly.

    By the way, am I alone in thinking the line on the Lifesavers ad would work better without an exclamation mark? With one, it looks a bit unsubtle – like saying ‘We all know no-one will lick this page, but I’m going to make this joke anyway’.
    Get me having a pop at one of the greatest advertisers of all time!

  • Penny
    September 12, 2016

    I wonder if there’s an emerging use within emails and IM systems (and previously in telegrams? Don’t know.) – anyway, in using exclamation marks to mitigate or defuse a comment which could otherwise be misinterpreted as hostile.

    Compare “I ate all the pies.” – “You would.” with “I ate all the pies” – “You would!”. The first could be interpreted as genuinely critical whereas the second is a cheeky, confident nudge to a friend, a bit of banter.

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