The Point of Exclamation!

What is the purpose of the punctuation symbol called an exclamation point or mark?

I find that I use it a lot in my non-technical writing, especially in email. My intent is to add emphasis, imply humor, communicate dismay or even incredulity. For example, I would sooner punctuate “Can you believe it” with an exclamation point than a question mark. Granted, it’s a rhetorical statement, but for the sake of some kind of technical accuracy, I like to use the question mark and then add the exclamation mark, too. Which of course is not technically accurate at all. Toldya, it ain’t technical writing I’m talking about here.

But when I read what I’ve written, sometimes years later as I’m currently doing for book research, it seems that I use the vertical outburst way too often. And as you know, anything that is overused (not just punctuation) becomes too familiar, is easily overlooked, and forfeits its impact.

One year a friend showed me the Christmas letter she’d written. I liked the fact that, instead of the way most of these letters drone on in paragraph form, she had used what amounted to a bullet list without the bullet characters, to convey the highlights of the previous year for her family. But every item in the list was capped off with an exclamation point. What was the point of that?

A dictionary definition often helps me to focus the meaning of the words I choose. Perhaps it will work for punctuation marks, too. But let’s start with just the word exclamation. Merriam-Webster gives two definitions:
1: a sharp or sudden utterance
2: vehement expression of protest or complaint

OK, yeah, I think that’s consistent with how I’ve been using the symbol. But can verbiage really be effective when it includes “a sharp or sudden utterance” every other sentence? Who wants to read text peppered with “vehement expression(s) of protest or complaint”? All that emotion just sounds exhausting. Even I get tired reading my own stuff.

On the other hand, I can get pretty animated when talking to someone in person. My frequent use of the exclamation point is an attempt to write in such a way that the reader can hear me talking. But I wonder, what do they really hear?

M-W defines exclamation point as follows:
1: a mark ! used especially after an interjection or exclamation to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling
2: a distinctive indication of major significance, interest, or contrast <the game put an exclamation point on the season> — also called exclamation mark

Yep, the first definition of the typographic symbol is consistent with the way I use it, too. The second one defines the actual words, but makes me wonder whether my use of the mark at the end of my written words indicates “major significance, interest, or contrast” to anyone but me.

Well, of course, my words mean more to me than to anyone else. But is punctuation, mere strokes in the flow of my story, sufficient means to sell the emotion behind my thoughts to a reader? Probably not.

So I have challenged myself to stop using my literary crutches (!!).
I shall be much more diligent to ensure that my written words can stand on their own.
I would go so far as to declare a ban on the exclamation point as a lazy writer’s device.
It’s unlikely, however, that I’ll ever eliminate wildly demonstrative exclamation from my speech.

Dear Lord, it’s killing me. That last sentence cries out, “You know you want to type it. That period looks so wimpy.”

But I will heed my muse, who calmly advises, “Disable the 1 key on your keyboard.”

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  1. I like your blog because you write as you talk. If a person is emotionally voluble in face-to-face conversation, I expect the emotion and humor to come out in an email, a letter, or a blog, which, after all, ahe conversational prose. You might not want to pepper an instruction manual with exclamation marks (except in appropriate warnings), but as far as I’m concerned, in your blog and your book, exclaim away! It’s part of who you are.

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