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:
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)