On The Overuse Of The Exclamation Mark

Over the years I’ve developed some very firm feelings about this particular pesky punctuation mark, meant to impart extra exclamatory emphasis to the words preceding its use in the pursuit of supposed clarity. Thankfully they are banned in creative writing (unless used in within dialogue) and academic formal writing circles, but they are widely used in informal messages, texts, and comments on social media. They are everywhere and spread like the hyphae of a fungus, unbidden and relentlessly procreating, to pop up at any time, anywhere – so watch out!  Maybe there’s a reason why a UK road sign uses this symbol as a warning of possible hazards ahead?

But let’s look at what this punctuation mark does to impart meaning, because its uses are legion, ranging from the innocently positive to the underhandedly or blatantly negative, where the writer can express their subconscious or conscious anger or antipathy. Depending upon the words the exclamation mark applies its stress of meaning to, it can convey any of the following:

surprise, shock, excitement, passion, shouting out loud, full agreement, wonder, effusive gushing…

through to sarcasm, irony, a command to follow instructions right now, a warning,

indignation, disagreement, urgency, protest, a reprimand, and sheer horror.

And governing all these interpretations is of course the context in which they are being used and how the reader chooses to work out the emotional thrust behind them – and it’s this working out of the writer’s intentional or unintentional meaning that can be the problem.

Ask yourself, would someone say something to someone’s actual face with quite the same gusto of expression that the exclamation mark imparts? I think it would be either too effusive or too aggressive, so that may be why the exclamation mark reigns in the written word outside of personal contact.

My own examples

1.The first time I can remember openly objecting to them was in a note written for me in a work diary by my manager. I worked at a visitor centre on the reception desk and because it was single-manned shifts that were operating, the diary became a vital form of communication between us to facilitate smooth running of the shop and desk operations. Well, I got there one day, to find a few lines of questions from my lady manager, asking me about and drawing my attention towards some error I’d made.

Something like this maybe: ‘What were you thinking of? !!!

Regardless of my mistake, which I realised I had made, I was incensed at the tone of her questions and observations all blown up out of proportion, so I felt, through the use of a line up of repeating exclamations marks !!!!, which slashed and stabbed at me. I was surprised she’d done this, it didn’t seem to fit with her character, but I didn’t want her to think she could ‘speak’ to me like that routinely. So next time we were doing the hand over I showed her the diary page and asked her not to use so many exclamation marks in future, because it came across as aggressive, if not rude. She was a little dumb founded, but soon retaliated with: ‘I’ll write how I like’ . I shrugged my shoulders – what else could I do? But maybe I got my point across, because it didn’t crop up again.

2.The second time I acted upon their use, was in the similar scenario of a single-manned crafts cooperative, of which I was member, where the members ran the shop in shifts. There was a notebook for passing on information, from one person to the next, so everyone would read this on a regular basis and it was interesting reading about what had been going on. There was a leading founder member (even though we were supposed to be all equals, if you know what I’m saying) who I knew didn’t like me and naturally enough, the feeling was mutual. We managed surface politeness face to face and on the phone, but oh how useful a notebook can be to reveal true feelings, where because the writer is actually removed from direct contact when their note is being read, there is a certain expressive licence that can come into play.

I’d had enough of an old sellotape dispenser, where the cutting edge teeth were blunt – no good for the neat packing of purchases in front of the customer, when you have to tug and rip at the tape or cut it with scissors or your own teeth. So with the ‘back in five minutes’ sign on the door, I went down the street and bought a new one, taking my expenses out of the kitty. I wrote in the notebook what I had done. The next time I was on shift, I turned to the page to see if anyone had said ‘Yay! Lovely!’

Well I got my exclamation marks, but the meaning was less than desirable, and guess who they’d come from – that’s right, my nemesis herself.

‘It wasn’t necessary to buy a new one!! There was nothing wrong with the old one!!!!

 There were no other comments whatsoever. Hers was the only voice. She’s not getting away with speaking to me like that, I decided. So I encircled the exclamation marks and wrote ‘what are all these about? There’re not necessary either’

No subsequent comments from others, no support during this acrimonious literary tussle.  I bided my time, but bailed out a couple of years later.

3. And the third example is a current one – but get this, shock horror, I’m now using them myself a good deal on social media – in order to agree, to congratulate, to say something nice, to be supportive. I kind of cringe when I type them and feel a bit hypocritical about it. But they are so well used, so abundant, that to omit them could read as not really meaning what you are saying. Coming across as half hearted or lacklustre. What’s happened to strength of feeling coming solely from the words themselves?

Try comparing this compliment with and without the !:

That’s great work!

That’s great work.

See what I mean?

But there again, you can have:

Simply beautiful!

Simply beautiful.

Where the second has a more understated, unequivocal power of feeling.

Anyway, I think most of us would agree the exclamation mark can be misconstrued and overused, and maybe we just have to think before we use it, especially in multiples of slashes and stabs, where we’re waging war or being excessively ingratiating to the point of weird. Here is a useful post on avoiding the overuse of the exclamation mark, where their overuse is compared to the consumption of antibiotics, because the more they are used, the less potent they become. Once more perhaps, an example of less is more.

A wee disclaimer here – I think I’ll have to carry on using them with social media because I feel I have to, that’s how entrenched they’ve become, but I am promising myself to police my use of them more often ;>)

(pic from pixaby)

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About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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18 Responses to On The Overuse Of The Exclamation Mark

  1. Rick Ellrod says:

    Good points. (Or, better perhaps, “Good points!” :)) At the same time . . .

    Written text lacks the additional cues we get from body language, tone of voice, and so forth — “sideband” information. This makes it easy to misconstrue meaning, particularly in the kinds of delicate exchanges you describe (“That’s great work.”). Punctuation helps add back some of that context.

    I find I use a lot of exclamation points in e-mails, text messages, and other information written communications; and I think it’s mostly because if I were there, I’d usually be projecting a sort of enthusiasm or good humor, and the words seem to convey that better with a !.

    In a similar way, I feel that, as a word buff, I ought to abhor emoticons. But in practice, they’re so darn useful in conveying tone — particular when you’re speaking tongue-in-cheek or humorously, which I do about 20% of the time — that I’m kind of glad they’re in use.

    I’d agree wholeheartedly that we should consider exactly what the punctuated (or overpunctuated) words are conveying before we use them. As with all the other written symbols, we want to use them carefully to get across just what we aim to.

    Rick

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      ‘Sideband’ information – I like that, Rick. Yes, it’s in purely written communication where something extra feels warranted – a kind of liveliness of response. I do like emoticons too, though some people use rows of them, whereas one is enough for me. A site I belong to for art purposes has animated jumping about or clapping emoticons which are fun to pick and add something extra. I can’t give up emoticons or exclamation marks but I do hesitate first, thinking about how it will come across, and not to use them in contrast to other people using them comes across as a bit ‘flat’, where flatness isn’t intended. And yes to their use for tongue in cheek replies too. Thanks for your thoughts, some great points, and much appreciated!

      Like

  2. Lynne, thank you for addressing something that I have been struggling with, too. I don’t mind exclamation points, but I feel they are becoming well overused on social media. Overusers include me. As always—something to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks, Cheryl. I’m using them on social media too, it’s so hard not to. But I do get a bit tired of feeling I must in case of looking like I lack enthusiasm when I am feeling it. This seems to be the social media world we’re living in, quite ‘full on’ at times. I don’t use them anywhere else though, so that speaks volumes. Cheers!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. galenpearl says:

    Since so much of our communication is now through text, email, social media, etc., instead of in person or on the phone, punctuation has morphed into a replacement for tone of voice, facial expressions, and such. Same with emojis, except that emojis also convey content as well as delivery. I’ve learned to roll with it a bit. But don’t even get me started on grammar pet peeves!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. terrepruitt says:

    I think they are GREAT! I love ’em!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Once I learned that editors and the like hate exclamation points, I removed them from my book. Now I only use them on Facebook when someone annoys me. I’m still selective about their use so they won’t lose their oomph. Thanks for the great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Hi Susanne, yes I took note of them being a no for including in fiction, and other forms of shall we say, professional, forms of writing. It’s interesting that you use them for annoyance, because that is what I think they can very much convey depending on the context. Oh well, it would seem they come in handy on social media, and all week I’ve been using them for enthusiasm – but only ever one! I can’t do !!!!! Thanks for sharing :>)

      Like

  6. Loved this !!!
    My pet peeve is the use of various words – like prior instead of before, and utilise instead of use… but worst of all is the use of lays down instead of lies down, and its various other ugly contortions… ugh !!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, once you get to thinking, there are others that pop up. In creative writing they say to use the simpler words, because using words like ‘prior’ and ‘utilise’ sounds too over-blown, kind of trying to show off one’s vocabulary, so in full agreement there. Those ‘telling off’ exclamation marks, in the safety of it being written down when the person to whom they are directed is absent is what gets to me the most – hence the post! Thanks for sharing, Valerie

      Like

      • Just a quickie before I settle down to the pleasure of replying to your lovely long reply elsewhere – my English teacher always taught me to use short Anglo Saxon words rather than long pompous words with Latin roots – he’d even say chuck instead of throw in conversation….I’ve stuck with this advice ever since… remembering too that though Shakespeare used and invented a vocabulary of 60,000 words, the beautiful prose of the Authorised version of the Bible used about 8,000 words… and no exclamation marks !!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        Ah, this makes some sense to me. My writing tutor for the OU said not to use Latinate terms, I had to ask what he meant by that, but was still unclear after his explanation. He certainly couldn’t stand words like scintillating or glistening. Anything elaborate was out of the question, something writing students fall into easily I expect :>)

        Like

  7. hannahtk says:

    What crazy passive-aggressive behavior you encountered! Unascceptable!!
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, Hannah – passive agressive sums it up perfectly. It goes on so much, this kind of behaviour, but it is one of the behaviours I identify on my radar quite easily these days 😉

      Like

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