“You said Moira had the baby but you didn’t use an exclamation point.”
“I just found it curious.”
“What’s so curious about it?”
“Well, if one of your close friends had a baby I’d use an exclamation point.”
Seinfeld, The Sniffing Accountant
I’ve been thinking a lot about exclamation points (or marks) lately.
I was reading a thriller by a male writer when a single exclamation mark leapt out at me. It was to punctuate the fact that someone had just been fatally shot – surely, like the baby news of Elaine’s friend from Seinfeld, an event worthy of an exclamation mark.
Yet I sometimes wonder how – and why – the exclamation mark has crept into modern discourse … and whether it truly belongs there.
Certainly, Elmore Leonard would agree with me: in his book the 10 Rules of Writing, he once said, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” He kept his word (or words), too: in 45 novels, he used 49 exclamations per 100,000 words.
The late, great Terry Pratchett seem to have agreed: “Five exclamation marks … the sure sign of an insane mind,” he wrote in Reaper Man.
Contrast that with James Joyce, who plastered – festooned, even!!! – his three novels with thousands of exclamation marks.
Perhaps there is one rule for writers of gritty crime fiction such as Get Shorty: another for authors of indulgent stream-of-consciousness odes like Ulysses.
Writer Tom Ewing was onto something when he said the exclamation mark was a “kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes”: another arrow in the quiver of the writer to grab the attention of the reader.
And today’s social media-obsessed world is all about those eyeballs. We’re desperate for clicks and tweets and shares.
As Neil Postman posited in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business, we’ve become a visual rather than a literate society.
He discussed this idea decades before everyone started expressing their emotions with gifs and memes and emojis rather than words, but he was on the right track.
The old rules of grammar and punctuation are disappearing.
Words have lost their primacy: the visual is all.
And no punctuation mark is more visual than the exclamation mark.
Today, there is no escaping them. You use them every day. So do I.
How often do we tell someone to “have a great day!” on social media? Or type “OMG!!!”? Or describe a meal or a person or a TV show as “amazing!”?
Why, sometimes we just type “(!)”.
To not use exclamation marks on social media is to suggest we are as emotionally dead inside as Elaine’s soon-to-be-ex boyfriend Jake.
On social media, we are all James Joyce.
Personally, I feel the Joycean use of exclamation marks outside of social media to be intemperate: to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “like laughing at your own joke”.
For me, the exclamation mark is the literary equivalent of the apocryphal “Millennial Participation Award”, where everyone gets a prize regardless of achievement or merit.
Verily, it is the Seinfeldian “puffy shirt” of punctuation.
In print, exclamation marks should be banished to the realms of children’s books, comics and Hansard records. To see them in serious works is an inky dagger thrust into my soul.
Perhaps there is a reason why exclamation marks are known as “dog’s dicks” in journalism, an unwanted sight to be marked and removed by the sub-editor’s red pen.
One can forgive the occasional act of Joycean exuberance in papers – such as the Japan Times & Advertiser’s headline of December 8 that “War is On!” after Pearl Harbor or the San Francisco Chronicle emoting that “Japan Hit By Atom Bomb — Mightiest Weapon In History!”
Yetr more preferable is the sober restraint of The New York Times’s headline “Men Walk On Moon”.
If the fact that we slipped the surly bonds of Earth to explore our universe didn’t deserve exclamation marks, then maybe Moira’s baby announcement didn’t warrant one, either.