Yikes! Save Some of Those Exclamation Points for a Rainy Day

 In Writing and Editing

Sometimes, words are simply not enough. There are times when we need to make sure our readers understand that a statement is super important, urgent, exciting or scary.

Enter the exclamation point.

With one simple stroke, we can add a little juice to any statement. But the question is, “Should we?”

While useful in moderation, the exclamation point is too often overused and unnecessary. After all, if everything is special, nothing is.

The truth is that we could probably live without it altogether.

The exclamation point wasn’t a recognized punctuation mark until around the year 1400 when it was known as a “mark of admiration.” It seems to have evolved from the Latin word io that was commonly used at the end of a sentence to indicate joy. Over time, the i moved above the o, and the o became smaller, becoming a point.

Darn those Medieval monks.

It didn’t even have its own dedicated key on standard manual typewriters before the 1970s. Before that, it was far easier to slip into a pair of bell bottoms and write a thoughtful, powerful phrase than to type a period, backspace and then type an apostrophe on top of it.

(To help those under 45 who don’t enjoy spending time in vintage or antique shops, Google “typewriter” to get a visual of the effort that would require. Then maybe order some Whiteout from Amazon for good measure.)

Our position as a company is firm on the overuse of exclamation points, just as it is on the serial comma (no) and using “fewer” instead of “less” where appropriate.

However, we do have clients with a different position on the matter. Some don’t feel as if a sentence is complete with just that little period at the end. A statement worth making is worth making with gusto.

We also occasionally get submissions from writers for our client publications that will have four or five exclamation points stacked up at the end of a single sentence. I am not kidding!!!!!

The digital red pen of correction gets very busy at that point – with no regrets.

William Strunk and E.B. White provide the best roadmap for the use of this temptress of punctuation in the iconic “The Elements of Style.” Their advice is simple: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.”

The wise journalists from Associated Press offer the same warning: “Avoid overuse of exclamation points. Use to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.”

As I discuss with my team on a regular basis, there is a right word or phrase for whatever we are trying to communicate, and coming close is usually not good enough.

Using an exclamation point at the end of a mediocre sentence certainly does not make it better.

Having said all that, there are good times to use it. You must be selective and save them for when you really need to make an impact or communicate genuine surprise, joy or excitement.

My beloved AP English teacher told us that we could only write the word “beautiful” three times in our entire lives. You can probably have more exclamation points in your quiver – but save them for when you really need them.

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I do think exclamation points are more useful in emails. Because emails are essentially written conversations that often require emotional interpretation after just a few words, the right punctuation can go a long way.

I have recently become a fan of occasionally ending emails with an exclamation point after “Thanks” instead of the traditional comma.

I am not sure emojis have a place in business emails, but the simple exclamation point can change the tone of the entire interaction. This is especially true if you are asking for something or responding to someone in a way that is not completely positive.

To me, closing with a “Thanks!” rings more true as a real thank you than just “Thanks,” which is more like I need a word before my name, so “Thanks.”

I would say the same rule applies for texts or social media posts. Even multiple exclamation points at the same time may be needed to express your enthusiasm for a night out with friends. No shame there.

So thank you Medieval Latin-speaking people for creating this powerhouse of punctuation.

May we use it wisely.

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