In a Zits comic strip Jeremy receives a message from Sara: ‘Hi!!!’ He tells his mother that he won’t be going out because Sara is really tired. When his mother asks how he knows she is tired he replies: ‘She’s down to three exclamation points.’

So how many exclamation marks should I use in my writing?

Now it’s all very well to convey your emotions with a conga line of exclamation marks to your family and friends, but when writing for business or technology more than one exclamation mark is always too many. Even one may be one too many.

I was once asked to review a presentation to lawyers, on writing, and in particular the PowerPoint slides. There were many problems with the content, and the slides, so I started by crossing out the exclamation marks. The author was indignant that I had done this and astounded when I described the marks as ‘tacky’. I think that my other suggestions about the content of the whole project were subsequently rejected in the same way.

As an experienced business and technical editor I do not remember ever making an editing suggestion that received such a hostile response. But I was in good company for here’s what other people have apparently said about the misuse of exclamation marks:

  • It is the sign of someone who wears their underpants on their head and is the sign of a diseased mind. [1]
  • It is like laughing at your own jokes[2].
  • ‘Some people “progress” from single to multiple exclamation points, reasoning that if one point adds emphasis, several will have a magnificent effect!!!!!!’ ‘They are indeed thought savers for the lazy writer…The right words usually provide enough emphasis without that little, period-tipped crutch at the end[3].
  • They are used by people who smile a lot and nod in agreement even though they don’t understand what is being said[4].
  • ‘The exclamation mark, I am trying to say, is the cockroach of the punctuation world. And that’s particularly so in the digital space…’[5].

The overuse and misuse of exclamation marks is a sign of an immature, inexperienced and unprofessional writer. Instead you should choose words that convey the humour, irony or emotions. Exclamation marks can even undermine your carefully chosen words.

‘If a string of words is designed to be an astonishment, a veritable terror of a string, the words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point at the end like a Toyota salesman on TV.’
Thomas, Lewis. Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.

Why do people use more than one?

  • They think their writing is boring and that the mark adds excitement. But if text is struggling to convey its meaning then it needs rewriting, not decorating with bling.
  • They think overstatement is better than understatement. They’re wrong.
  • They think the reader will miss the surprise or emotion. But if the text can be misread then it needs to be rewritten.
  • They have no confidence or trust in their writing.
  • They think they sound depressed. But if the text can be misread then it needs to be rewritten.

Did you know?

Typewriters didn’t include a key for the exclamation mark until the 1970s.

The exclamation mark has had various names including: admiration mark, bang, christer, control, dembanger, gasper, pling, screamer, shriek/shriekmark, shout pole, slammer, smash, soldier, spark-spot, startler and wonderer.

So what should you do?

Always remember that when you write you are a professional.

Consult Indis for more information on punctuation and using exclamation marks when writing. In the meantime let your writing do the talking and leave the misuse of exclamation marks to:

  • Scamsters hyping up their dodgy offerings, making them sound attractive to the unwary.
  • Real estate copywriters struggling to describe the view over public toilets.
  • Fashion journalists gushing over the heel height and color of the latest stilettos.
  • Kidnappers composing a ransom note in the never ending tv drama.
  • Comic writers–we all love to read ‘Kaboom!!!!’.

 


[1] Characters in books by Sir Terence David John ‘Terry’ Pratchett, British comic fantasy writer
[2] Attributed to F.Scott Fitzgerald, American author
[3] Cheney, Theodore. Getting the words right. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005. pp140–141
[4] Barlette, Kristi Gustafson. ‘People who use excessive exclamation points are …’. 16 April 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2013 http://blog.timesunion.com/kristi/people-who-use-excessive-exclamation-points-are/27482/
[5] Garbar, Megan. ‘Screamer, slammer, bang … and 15 other ways to say exclamation point’. 5 April 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/screamer-slammer-bang-and-15-other-ways-to-say-exclamation-point/274687/