In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Katherine Bindley writes of the debate over whether exclamation marks are overused. It is an issue teachers in particular should read, they being among the most cavalier of exclamation mark users.
How many times have you seen a note from a teacher that reads, “You did a great job!!!” or “It’s so good to have you in the class!!!” “Awesome!!!”
Let’s admit it: There are some teachers who end literally every sentence with an exclamation mark.
It isn’t as if we are more enthusiastic than we used to be. John Keilman at the Chicago Tribune writes:
This grammatical sea change has been a rough transition for a lot of us old timers, given that our teachers trained us to regard exclamation points as the Donald Trump of punctuation: loud, overbearing and best endured in small doses. Using them for anything but the most passionate interjection was the sign of a lunatic or an airhead.
But oh, how times have changed!!!
Why has this happened? Some people blame electronic media, particularly email and text messaging: “There’s an exclamation in every email and text, if not a string of them!!!” says Time magazine’s Katy Steinmetz. “As we type, we glibly spray them about like candies off a parade float.”
The resulting debate now has proponents and opponents hurling arguments at each other, one side with and one without exclamation marks.
Really, what is wrong with too many exclamation marks anyway?
For some, it is simply bad linguistic form. “An exclamation point,” Keilman quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald as saying, “is like laughing at your own jokes.”
For others, however, the overuse of this particular piece of punctuation has resulted in a kind of cheapening of the exclamation mark, a sort of linguistic inflation, with too much punctuation chasing too little enthusiasm. To some, says Keilman, its overuse has “muted the mark’s ability to powerfully exclaim, as a joke’s hilarity wanes when told over and over and over.”
And one consequence of this is the fate of those who decide to buck the inflationary trend.
Bindley catalogs several cases in which office colleagues have mistaken the lack of an exclamation mark as a slight or a threat. One young woman, Mel DeCandia, is recounted as texting her boss that she was sick and working from home, to which the text response was “That’s fine.” But the lack of an encouraging exclamation mark caused DeCandia no end of anxiety over whether this was really acceptable. “The period just kind of stared me in the face and told me that my career had ended,” she told Bindley, after which followed an emotional meltdown stanched only by a reassuring conversation with her busy boss that the lack of an exclamation mark was merely the result of having to rush to a meeting.
As the satirical website the Onion put it (thanks again to Keilman), “In a diabolical omission of the utmost cruelty, stone-hearted ice witch Leslie Schiller sent her friend a callous thank-you email devoid of even a single exclamation point, sources confirmed Monday.”
But perhaps the best thing to say about the overuse of the exclamation mark is simply that it has become a crutch for people who can’t express their emotions with actual words.
So next time you feel the urge to use an exclamation mark take a deep breath, count to ten, and ask yourself if you really need it, and if you do, just use one rather than three!!!