Everybody knows there are rules regarding punctuation. This article isn't about them.
I'm on a lot of e-mail lists; a great many people feel I should be kept abreast of developments at their companies, career milestones of the artists they represent, legislative or electoral triumphs and outrages, and too much more. And though I find some of the news they herald noteworthy, more often than not they compensate for mundane content with an inappropriate, nay, giddy level of enthusiasm. The primary means of expressing this overwrought intensity? The exclamation point.
Say what you will about this textual yelp in the reader's ear, this megaphone for interjections, this visual volume knob beloved of barkers, impresarios and publicists; sometimes it is entirely the right touch. And let's face it, different people have differing levels of tolerance for the grandiloquent little devil. But most temperate readers agree that the exclamation point is a bit like hot sauce — a little goes a long way; too much burns out all the flavor.
Case in, er, point: An e-mail announcement with five, count 'em, five of these suckers in the subject line. The message was about a conference call. You read right, a freakin' conference call. I sat and stared at that manic missive for a while, wondering why I felt so scarred by it. Perhaps it was because I imagined having to yank the receiver from my ear as the participants shouted their pleasantries: "How are you, Frank?!!!!" "I'm just OK, Monica!!!! How are you?!!!!" But more likely I recoiled because the sender was gleefully transmitting his clumsiness as a communicator while inviting me (and countless others) to chat.
The National Punctuation Day website notes that the exclamation point is "used in writing after an exclamation or interjection, expressing strong emotion or astonishment, or to indicate a command," adding — without apparent irony — "AVOID OVERUSE!" (National Punctuation Day is Sept. 24; mark your calendar for '09.) I confess that there are times when I think even a single exclamation point amounts to "overuse."
Do you really intend your utterance to be sharp or sudden? Is vehemence sincerely what you're after? Why, exactly, are you so worked up?Would it be wrong to suggest that you regard the exclamation point as a prized bottle of Bordeaux, to be poured only on a special occasion? Or that you ration it, using a maximum of one per message? Or that you use language sufficiently descriptive to convey your meaning and forgo the exclamation point altogether?
A dear friend of Editorial Emergency has lamented on more than one occasion the punctuation abuse of a woman in her office, a person in a position of authority whose e-mails are festooned with exclamation points. She wields them like tiny cudgels, urging her colleagues to action with a typographical cattle prod when a gentle period or unaccompanied question mark would do. Our friend is looking for a new job. Coincidence? You be the judge.
If you've already typed one exclamation point and your finger is poised over the key, ready for a second go, stop, drop and roll — and consider what an exclamation is. Per Merriam-Webster.com:
1 : a sharp or sudden utterance
Do you really intend your utterance to be sharp or sudden? Is vehemence sincerely what you're after? Why, exactly, are you so worked up?
As you know, we're here to help, so I've taken the liberty of rating some declarative exclamations:
I asked Julia to marry me, and she said yes! (appropriate)
Now, the next time you're inclined to deploy a phalanx of exclamation points in your messaging, please ask yourself: How loud do you really need to be? I'm sitting right here.