Multiple exclamation points, often inexplicably inflected with question marks and preceded by all capital letters, have become a common mode of expressing excitement, urgency, and, probably more often than not, ego. “SAVE THE DATE!!!!!” reads a familiar subject heading on an email. “ORDER NOW!!!!! WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!!!!!” urges a typical advertisement for a product that’s probably languishing in a warehouse somewhere, hardly in jeopardy of running low. “Maybe we can have lunch next week!!!?!! I’ll let you know tomorrow!!!?!” one co-worker responds to a query from another about her availability for a meeting. Is the reader to take the seemingly random question mark in each case as a sign of the writer’s uncertainty over whether she truly will be available next week and / or will know about her availability tomorrow? Or is a rogue question mark a slip of the finger in the flurry of typing fast or, alternatively, a means of separating some exclamation points from others for emphasis?
The rage to convey that very emphasis seems to promote the mushrooming of these punctuation marks, which, individually and unto themselves, are harmless enough, but, when used singly, may appear too frail to support the enthusiasm that a writer is passionate to express. But I’d like to make a case for the “less is more” viewpoint in this instance and suggest that a single, well-placed, and rare exclamation point may well serve the purpose better than a smothering abundance.
When my now grown son was in elementary school and I was hovering over his work on various writing assignments, he referred to an exclamation point as an “excited mark.” One day, as I reviewed a piece he’d written about some now forgotten topic, I paused over a sentence that I brought to his attention. “Don’t you want to put an excited mark here?” I asked, indicating the end of the sentence in question. “No,” he responded in the blasé manner of a bored artist. “Why not?” I asked him. Hands on hips, he responded, “Because I’m not very excited about it.”
We could all distill a lesson from the mouth of this babe, whose reluctance to use an unwarranted excited mark counsels us to measure our enthusiasm. Used sparingly, exclamation points stand a chance to do just what they propose to do: exclaim!
Little literary magazines, those bastions of refined, if conservative, literary taste and keepers of high standards, now commonly ward writers away from using frequent and multiple exclamation marks in pieces they’re submitting for publication. “We encourage writers to create emphasis through word choice, placement, syntax and sentence pacing, rather than overuse of exclamation marks,” advises New Letters to those who would publish in its pages. What might be viewed as snobbery on the part of the literary establishment may well be, instead, a bit of common sense endorsed by such writers as Elmore Leonard and such experts on writing as William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White and, more recently, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of a book on how to improve upon email communication (Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home). Electronic communication has indeed upped the excited mark ante, shifting the now seemingly quaint concern over the prodigious use of single exclamation marks to worry over the multiplication of the mark in every instance.
Understandably, the surplus of question and exclamation marks substitutes for words themselves in media that favor and even necessitate brevity, particularly text messages and tweats. At the same time, though, the overuse drains power from the original practice, creating a zombie effect: paradoxically, the increased volume deadens the intellect and ear. In parallel, consider words that have lost their force as a result of over-application—wonderful, for example, which used to mean, truly, “full of wonder,” not just barely “remarkable.” I remember the day almost thirty years ago when a student described a colleague’s religion course to me as “awesome.” That was when we could still recognize how misplaced such a usage was, especially in reference to a scholar of the actually “awesome.”
The challenge to a writer is to conjure enthusiasm, excitement, wonder, and perhaps even awe without gimmickry, clichés, or crutches.