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Unlike those who are dead-set against the innocent exclamation, I happen to like the point.  It’s sassy, peppy, and just a little bit over-the-top!  It’s not professional.  It’s not formal.  I’ve not used it in an academic essay or project paper.  I can’t use it when I want to present an objective distance towards a topic.

But when I am online and writing to people on social media sites, you bet that I pepper my sentences with a spattering of !!!!s.

Rather than indicating anger or shouting (isn’t that after all what all caps does?) as some have suggested, the exclamation point originated as a mark of admiration.  The Greek word for “exclamation point” is “thauma,” revealing the word’s roots in miracles and wonders, a human reaction when face-to-face with a god.  Romantic poets confronted with the sublime in nature knew how to use the exclamation point because words, sometimes, fall short of experience.

But a bit of emotion is acceptable in poetry, surely?  Even one of the style conservatives, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, allows poets limited usage but then quickly comes down – quite insultingly – on any other writer who dares to use them: “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.”

Sure, like all good things, the exclamation point can be overused – but I forgive those who love them and those who put more than one point next to another (a decided no-no) because I get it: our social lives have become perhaps too digitalized.

Because of an increase in digital communication, we have lost many visual clues.  Without the body being present, not only have we lost body language clues such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and body positioning that all add layers of meaning to the words themselves, but we’ve also lost inflection, tone, pitch, and volume.  With so many indicators of emotion and intent missing, people feel a need to supplement an email, a text, a tweet, a Facebook update, or message board posting with a bit of personality.  The exclamation point is all we’ve got.  Omg!!!!!

I’m not the only one who defends this much maligned punctuation (truly the most mandated against form of punctuation ever!).  One theorist points out its gendered use as women use them more than men do.  Rather than seeing this as a mark of insecurity or too much emotion, she sees it as a mark of friendliness.

And before it seems as if no man will ever weigh in on the exclamation point’s side, let me provide you with an example of two men who do.  David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (who worked at the New York Times and Hyperion Books respectively) defend its usage in the office – does that surprise some of you?  In their book Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, they present two sentences, one without an exclamation point and one with.  What difference do you sense:

“I’ll see you at the conference” versus “I’ll see you at the conference!”

As they indicate, the first is a statement of fact.  The second shows eagerness and anticipation.  In my internal voicing of the sentence, the word “conference” in the second has a higher pitch, more emphasis and energy, and a more outgoing nature – as if  I am sending the word out into the world to meet those fellow conference attendees.  The first, however, has a deeper tone, a flatter affect, is much more subdued, and I almost feel that the “con” syllable is pulling the “ference” bit back into my teeth as if I am not that eager to go.  Surely, if just for the sake of one’s job, a bit of work enthusiasm – and an exclamation point – goes a long way.

– Eleni Anastasiou, 21st September 2012

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