Want to start an argument with a group of grammarians? Just bring up the subject of exclamation points, and the verbal sparring will begin. SOCK!! WHAM!! POW!!
Grammar purists and most writers argue for self-restraint. Mark Twain, in an 1895 essay on writing funny stories, castigated those who use “whooping exclamation-points” as if laughing at their own humor. Such writing, he said, was so depressing that it “makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.”
Years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald echoed the thought, counseling writers to “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
Curmudgeons can criticize and often do, but there is more to an exclamation point than an author’s self-satisfied chuckling.
Exclamation points can convey shock (Aaah!) or awe (Wow!).
They can signal incredulity (You don’t say!) or dismay (Oh no!).
What better way to punctuate joy (O happy day!) or warm regards (Happy birthday!)?
The thing about exclamation points, as ably elucidated by Florence Hazrat, is that they denote feelings. In An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark (Profile Books, 2022), Hazrat defends the maligned mark against both minimizing critics and usurping emojis.
It’s the feeling aspect that, to a degree, has turned the debate into a women’s issue, especially when it comes to digital writing. A 2012 study by Carol Waseleski published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication compared two online discussion boards and found that women were responsible for 73% of the exclamation points in posted messages.
After close examination of each message in context, researchers concluded that the “markers of excitability” were most commonly used to indicate friendly interaction rather than aggression or anger.
In online communication, women are more likely to prefer friendliness to friction, and exclamation points serve as social lubrication. In an article for the website Vice, Wendy Sifret reported that she once tried to eliminate exclamation marks from her digital communication in hopes of appearing more professional. The result? Friends asked if she was mad with them, and co-workers were less cooperative.
“I lasted two weeks,” she said.
So, how should we feel about this feeling mark that can convey friendliness in our texts but suggest canned applause in more formal writing?
It’s all about context, right? The harder it is to decide if an exclamation point is appropriate, the less likely we are to need it.
I came of age at a time when exclamation points required extra thought. Long before computer-aided word processing, I went through two manual typewriters and an electric portable before acquiring a used IBM Selectric typewriter that had an exclamation point on the keyboard.
Prior to that, you had to type a period, backspace, and then type an apostrophe above the period.
Today you can hold your finger on a single key and spit out !!!!!!!!! like popcorn.
In my “Writing for Ministers” class, I caution students against the overuse of exclamation points in formal writing. I insist, for example, that when composing news stories, exclamation points should be regarded as “an abomination unto thee.”
Perhaps it should be “an abomination unto thee!”
The less formal the writing, the more suitable an occasional – I did say occasional – exclamation point becomes. In most published formats, it’s far better to convey mood with well-fitted words than with cheap punctuation.
In digital dialogue, however, where brevity is king (or queen), exclamation points rule. When one of our kids sends a picture of a dish they’ve just cooked, or when Susan texts a photo of a painting in progress, I can’t respond with a simple “Nice.” That sounds uninterested, almost dismissive. It has to be “Nice!”
I will not venture into emojis, which can become their own kind of abomination when overused, and more trouble than they’re worth. Finding the right emoji on a smartphone takes longer than period-backspace-apostrophe on a manual typewriter.
As with most things in life, exclamation points are best used in moderation, but writing would be poorer if they’d not been invented. Without an exclamation point, how could we make use of the combination delightfully known as an “interrobang”!? Right!?
But more seriously, nothing works like a simple exclamation point when there is amazing news to share, like this: “He is risen!”
It is the season. He is risen indeed!
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.