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“An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes”–F. Scott Fitzgerald

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the exclamation point. There’s even a blog dedicated to the symbol:

http://excessiveexclamation.blogspot.com/

The conversation about it is so widespread that it has even entered pop culture. Who remembers the “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine tries to defend her addition of multiple exclamation points to an author’s manuscript? Her boss, Mr Lippman, asks why she made these edits to which Elaine responds by saying, “I felt the writing lacked a certain emotion.” Apparently, Elaine was obsessed with exclamation points. There are other episodes where this punctuation rears its ugly head.

There is a theory that the modern exclamation point has its roots in Latin. Apparently, when the ancients got excited, they used the io symbol for joy with the I written above the o, and since Latin was written in all caps, it must have seemed to the reader that the writer was having a joyous fit.

This  severe unit of punctuation is a permanent resident in old comic books, mostly used to represent the bang of a gun shot. In fact, secretaries in the 1950s called the exclamation point a ‘bang’ for shorthand.

The symbol I have come to fear and loathe was only added to manual typewriters in the 1970s. If you wanted to show your excitement, anger, concern or astonishment before that decade, you had to type a period, backspace once then type an apostrophe above it.

I am not the only one who has an unnatural aversion to the exclamation point. Many writers have expressed their dislike of the punctuation, calling it overwrought or in the words of Eric, a character in Terry Pratchetts Discworld series, “multiple exclamation points are a sure sign of a diseased mind.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I still think the dreaded ! is unnecessary.

For languages that use the Roman alphabet, punctuation is vital to the meaning of a sentence. A comma in the wrong place or one that is omitted completely can spell disaster. See Eats, Shoots & Leaves—the humorous little book on grammar published in 2003.

The exclamation point is the only unit of punctuation that has an emotional content, one that seems to have mood swings too. No one reads into the emotional state of a question mark, and who in their right mind questions the finality of a period? But the exclamation point has evolved since its first use by an overly excited Roman to encompass admiration, anger, warning, excitement and a host of other meanings, which seems to me to make it a useless bit of punctuation. Writing can be a minefield of misunderstandings just waiting to erupt on an unsuspecting reader. Why add more fodder to the mix?

I realize there are proponents of this symbol. There’s even a town in Hamilton, Ohio that changed its name to Hamilton! in 1986. Either the residents really loved their town or the mayor needed to cut back on the cocaine.

It seems that opinions abound on when and if to use this wily piece of punctuation. I even found a blurb in the Economist online (http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2010/12/punctuation_and_shame) discussing the merits and drawbacks of the exclamation point. The writer despises them in emails, but admires Russian novelists’ use of the symbol. As for Elaine, I’d say to her that any good writer should be able to express the requisite amount of emotion without using exclamation points, but I guess the jury will always be out on when and if to use the symbol. My verdict, however, is death to the exclamation point!!!!!!!!

–Erin Dougherty, September 3, 2012

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