Anyone who has worked with me here at the Summerland Review, and anyone who has been at a writing workshop with me, will know how much I loathe the exclamation point.
This form of punctuation was started with good intentions, as a tool to use occasionally for added emphasis.
But today, the exclamation point is not an occasional flourish. It pops up everywhere.
And when writers use multiple exclamation points, the result looks quite messy.
Consider the following sign: “WARNING!!! All unattended laundry will be discarded immediately!!! No questions asked!!!!!!!”
Sentences like these look like fields overgrown with weeds. I want to find a literary lawn mower and clean up the landscape.
The person who wrote the sign is doing the equivalent of yelling in print.
Besides, the sign is about unattended laundry. It’s hardly a crisis.
If a sign about laundry calls for sentences with three or seven exclamation points, what happens when there’s something much more urgent?
Would news about the start of a war require 10 or more exclamation points? Would a single exclamation point mean the war was just a minor skirmish or a barroom brawl?
While multiple exclamation points show up from time to time, the single exclamation point is far more common. And at times, it is used instead of a period to end a sentence.
It wasn’t always like this.
Years ago, before computers had been invented, manual typewriters didn’t have an exclamation point. To create this symbol, one had to type a period, hit the backspace, then shift and type the number eight to get an apostrophe.
That’s four steps to create one mark. Adding multiple exclamation points for emphasis took a lot of effort. Writers had to decide whether the sentence merited this much work.
Today, on my computer keyboard, it’s easy to put an exclamation point into a text document.
All I have to do is hit the shift and type the 1. That’s the same amount of effort as typing a capital letter. For multiple exclamation points, I just keep holding down the shift key while typing the 1.
It’s almost effortless.
Because it’s so easy to use, this form of punctuation shows up far more frequently than in the past.
Does it matter someone uses an exclamation point at the end of each sentence or even a dozen exclamation points after an important statement? Isn’t this just a matter of personal style?
If exclamation points were simply a step in the evolution of punctuation, I wouldn’t be too concerned.
But this punctuation mark is also affecting the way we think and how we communicate with each other.
We’re living in a time when everything has become a big deal.
Or, more accurately, we’re living in a time when everything has become A Big Deal!
A small line item in a large government budget becomes A Colossal Waste of Taxpayer Dollars!
Criticism of a book or an art exhibit becomes A Tyrannical Assault on Freedom of Speech!
Almost anything can quickly become A Crisis Of Mammoth Proportions!
The problem isn’t the use or misuse of the exclamation point — even though it’s a form of punctuation I despise.
Instead, exclamation point abuse should be seen as the symptom of something more serious.
Not everything is worthy of an exclamation point. Not everything qualifies as a big problem.
Sometimes the line item in the budget is a minor issue, representing a few hundredths of a percent of the total.
Sometimes the criticism of a book or an art exhibit is a response to a badly created work, not the artist’s message.
Not everything deserves an urgent and immediate response. It’s okay to end with a period.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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