exclamation marks. Way exciting!

April 30, 2009


The exclamation point may be taking over the world. Stuart Jeffries in yesterday’s Guardian gave us a terrifying taste of the punctuation we’re getting used to in this age of blogs and dashed-off emails. And what we get used to today will be what the next generation takes for granted:

…in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. They write, for instance, “‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event … ‘Thanks!!!!'”, they contend, “is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’.”

Shipley is comment editor of the New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books. Those of you thinking that grown men with serious jobs should be above such phrases as “way friendlier” should realise that in the 21st century, adult appropriation of infantilisms is de rigueur, innit? Today, no one reads or cares about Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in which it is maintained: “Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”

As a poet I can tell you that even in poetry you should be suspicious of an exclamation mark. It’s also a shame about Fowler’s English Usage. (I tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style, combined with a few other reference books.) Knowing the difference beetween fgood and bad grammar, or syntax, or typographical style, can save a lot of time in meetings and proofreading. It can even make your writing more consistent, since you no longer have to reinvent (or is that re-invent?) the wheel every time. The main thing is to sound like you know what you’re saying, and to get your point across. You don’t have to be one of the kids.

Over at curiouser.co.uk, Jenni Larson has done all the work so you never need to let yourself be embarrassed by a cover letter again. In a neat paradox, her writing rules contain their opposites. Here are just a couple:

Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Be more or less specific.

Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary…

Then again, Stuart reminds us how lucky we are to have these excesses at our disposal. No wonder the Victorians needed actual melodrama to spice up their novels: it was (way) easier than punctuation:

It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that’s what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at – ooh, I don’t know – the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe.

Next time you feel tempted to overdo your exclamation marks, stop and ask yourself if you would still want to use them if you had to go to all that bother.


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