In defense of the exclamation mark

Bro, do you punctuation inflation? Oh, you’re too cool.

If you think, there’s been over-utilization of the exclamation mark in modern day communication the universe has provided you with a bit of validation.

Killjoy journalists, fed-up authors, and even corporate professionals have taken up the mantle of dampening the excess use of the “!”.

In a 2,000-word essay Cory Fernandez of Fast Company cautioned, “American’s are using too many exclamation marks… so much, that it may be detrimental to their career.”

Even in the age of mounting tribalism, increases in adolescent depression, cocktail lounges misusing the term artisan, and an annual fall homage to pumpkin based products, pop culture critic Rembert Browne believes, “The use of multiple “!’s” is the worst thing in the culture of the Western Hemisphere.”

This year, the Philadelphia Inquirer warned that the indulgence in exclamation mark usage was becoming so dangerous that, “a brewing revolt from the masses is needed.”

Last month, Julie Beck from The Atlantic argued, “Digital communication is going undergoing exclamation point-inflation.”

Ms. Beck’s colleague Rebecca Greenfield penned an article titled, It’s Time to Fix America’s Email Exclamation Point Addiction!. She complained, “For those of us who e-mail on a regular basis, there’s a certain pressure to use an “!” in every e-mail fearing we’d otherwise come off as dour, sarcastic, just plain rude.”

Authors Rebecca Curtis, Sam Lipsyte, and Arthur Bradford proclaimed the situation of punctuation perk so dire that they are on a mission to, “redeem the devalued exclamation mark.”

Lately, I’ve witnessed the fever pitch to clamp down on exclamation mark excess wherever I go. At two urbanization conferences (where issues such as gentrification, housing, and inequality were meant to be covered) there were hour long panels dedicated to finding ways to police punctuation enthusiasm. In 2018, I’ve had countless friends recount conversations with management where they were politely told, among other words, “to patrol their (punctuation) perk”.

The new linguistic phenomenon has become such an epidemic, to many, that Urban Dictionary coined a new term for it, bangorrhea — the overuse of exclamation points in a vain and failing attempt to make your writing sound more exciting. The new slang database goes a step further by claiming bangorrhea a “grammedical” condition. The state of linguistics has become such a mess syntax purists are now battling figurative infections.

If the thoughts really? Are you serious? Do you have any friends? Or, get the fuck out of here cross your mind when hearing this white-collar conundrum then you’re on the right side of this debate.

Messages with multiple exclamation marks are dope. The outrage surrounding the evolving rules and rituals governing language is a curmudgeon cultivated canard.

Lexicon traditionalists aghast at the evolving use of punctuation forget language always evolves and transforms.

Much like the words awesome, nice, quell, and yes dope the exclamation mark once carried darker meanings. Now its use has been downgraded from a shout of alarm or intensity to a symbol that indicates politeness and sociability.

As Heidi Julavits points out in her memoir The Folded Clock, “You were in trouble when the exclamation points came out. They were the nunchucks of punctuation. They were a bark, a scold, a gallows sentence. Not any longer. The exclamation point is lighthearted, even whimsical.”

In other words, the exclamation mark has transformed from an intensity marker to a sincerity marker.

Which is why former Editors, and individuals probably liked by their colleagues, David Shipley and Will Schwable, authors of the e-mail etiquette guide Send, support the punctuation proliferation movement. In their blueprint for the conversing in the digital world, Messrs Shipley and Schwable argue, “Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth.”

Further, the online protocol authors note exclamation marks are vital in deciphering whether a person is providing a statement of fact (i.e. I’ll see you at the conference) or a sense of excitement (i.e. I’ll see you at the conference!). If you rarely work with the colleague, utilizing an exclamation mark sets a diplomatic and welcoming tone when beginning a joint project.

In surveying this history of my own workplaces (that has spanned from jobs in government, nonprofits, start-ups, finance, and now journalism) the grammar snobs have always been the office culture Debbie Downers — the type of employees who seek disdain for the sake of disdain. The ones who think he’s (and it’s always a he) too old, or cool, to celebrate birthdays, the employee who scoffs at a volunteer event planting trees in the park because it doesn’t completely solve global warming, the person angry at attending the company Christmas party because he’s too busy, and worst of all, Boston sports fan.

When I spoke with Jeff Rubin, the Founder of National Punctuation Day (taking place on September 24th for anyone interested) he confirmed my hypothesis on exclamation haters (even the Boston bit).

“Those railing against the exclamation inflation as if it’s an affront to the traditional way of writing have no idea what they are talking about. If you go back 20 or 30 years ago it’s the same thing in handwritten notes. I had friends who used to write to me longhand and use 10 exclamation points.”

There is a justified fear that its over-usage may be the exclamation marks demise. The excess of its use can eventually take the power out of the punctuation. How can one pinpoint what deserves gleeful exhilaration if every thought is conveyed as a note of elation? This concern, coupled with the rise of emojis, is why Mr. Rubin believes, “we may have well reached peak punctuation.”

But I pray he and punctuation inflation haters are wrong. I hope that we exclamation enthusiasts figure out the right balance in displaying our affection and spirit. In a talk on etymology, Stanford University Psychology Professor Lera Broditsky pointed out, “Throughout history, what people do with written language is that they adopt it to meet their needs.”

In a world where we are becoming more distant from each other, human beings desperately need not only more lively communication, but more opportunities to transfer warmth and kindness through dialogue. A slight alteration in the use of a punctuation that better highlights a sense of one’s enthusiasm for interacting with another human, joy in a kinship, and loving giddiness should be celebrated, not curtailed.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store