When was the last time you read a rant on punctuation? Well, buckle in.
Submitted for your approval, I am formally recommending to the Punctuation Police that we abolish the exclamation point!
Really, what purpose does it serve?! It is the most wildly over-used mark of punctuation in the English language and is dragging all of us down with its haphazard excitement and indiscriminate emphasis!
One dictionary defines the exclamation point as “a mark used especially after an interjection or exclamation to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling.” One theory of the origin of this renegade punctuation is that it originated from the Latin exclamation of joy, conceived in the Middle Ages as “io.” Over time the, the “i” crept up over the “o” eventually rendering it as a point.
Wikipedia says “the exclamation mark was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century to show emphasis, and was called the ‘sign of admiration or exclamation’ or the ‘note of admiration’ until the mid-17th century.”
Today, printers call the exclamation point a screamer, gasper, slammer or startler. Hackers refer to it as a bang, shriek or pling.
It hardly summons the image of Gutenberg’s protégés conveying Latin joy in the printed word.
Don’t get me wrong, the exclamation point had its day. Once upon a time, it was so special it didn’t even appear on typewriter keyboards til the early 1970s. Back then, it was reserved for really special emphasis as a seldom-used element, much like the NC-17 movie rating or that storage bin of extra TV cables in the garage.
But then, writers got greedy and decided to denote emphasis and excitement at every turn! It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who noted the folly in that.
“Cut out all those exclamation marks,” he said. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
At no time in the history of education has anyone taught the need to use two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence!! Not even a fragment!
Of course, the explosion of the information age and social media are the big culprits in the spiraling descent of the once elegant exclamation point into the pit of grammatical despair, next to the ellipsis and that little squiggly thing to the left of the “1” on the keyboard.
I get the need for emphasis, but at what cost? English scholars of the 15th century did not have Twitter. Of course, the irony there is that one would think that conservation of characters is a good thing when one only has 140 to deal with. Invariably, though, if there are five characters left, there’s a good chance they’ll all be filled with exclamation points!!!!!
Then, there are blogs, faux journalism, pseudo news and the like. For these folks, the ‘slammer’ is their stock-in-trade.
The website CrimethInc.com described the ‘Exclamation Point Test’ as a useful exercise to determine if material being read is relevant.
“To apply this test, simply go through the text replacing all the punctuation marks at the ends of the sentences with exclamation points. If the result sounds absurd when read aloud, then you know you’re wasting your time.”
Then, there’s Howard Mittlemark’s take on the exclamation point in How Not to Write a Novel.
“In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”
And, Sabrina Taylor, on craftyourcontent.com vividly suggests that overuse of the exclamation point gives English grammar the middle finger.
Exclamation apologists argue that this is the nature of punctuation in the 21st century where you no longer need an original thought to connote emotion, but a vertical line with a period under it.
I beg to differ!
Think of what a wonderful world it would be. Without the exclamation point, e-mailers will be forced to learn how to craft a graceful sentence that conveys the inflection and emotion of a given statement or sentiment. Tweeters will have to think much more strategically about the highest and best use of those 140 characters. Bloggers will have to figure out other ways to underscore their irritation at contemporary politics and/or pop culture. Editors will finally get some sleep.
Most of all, everyone will begin to re-read their e-mail before hitting send and seeking out alternative forms of punctuation. May I suggest re-discovering our definitive friend, the period, along with its curious cousin, the question mark?
So, in the final analysis, should we continue to allow false excitement to permeate our dealings with each other?! Should we allow this degradation of proper sentence structure to set us back?! No, I say! Let’s send the exclamation point back to the Middle Ages from whence it came!
Now, about the Oxford comma …