You don’t see it often. It’s tabooed. It’s tacky. It’s overkill. It’s immature.
It’s a punctuation mark that deserves a chance. (Sacrilege! Witch! Witch! — See? Useful.)
Students, writers, student-writers, editors and the like are warned about the dangers of the exclamation mark pervading the written word. Editors are told to remove it unless encountered in the rarest of forms: when used appropriately. Writers are instructed to use it sparingly, if at all.
And I understand why— to a degree. If overused, the emotional charge of the symbol is lost, as with anything. If I say “I love you” with the same rhythm and frequency that I eat Ritz Crackers, you will think it is a word I just throw around (side note, I really do love the whole wheat Ritz Crackers). Similarly, if you abuse the exclamation mark, it loses its meaning— it is no longer an indication of anger, excitement, frustration, volume, etc., but becomes as commonplace as a period, or no different than the last cracker you crammed into your mouth, though perhaps slightly more salty (last time, I swear).
However, I think the attempt to prevent deterioration of meaning has become overzealous, to the point that the mark is in danger of extinction. Because of warnings against this exclamatory ending, the mark has become something of a leper among its punctuation counterparts. Somehow, god help us, the semicolon is thriving in comparison.
I haven’t heard a better explanation of public perception of the exclamation mark than that of the punctuation powerhouse, Lynne Truss, in her “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”:
“In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly” (Truss 138).
For whatever reason, the mark represents a lack of control, both on the writer’s part and whoever/whatever is associated with it in the sentence.
Limiting its use causes the writer to pause: Is the idea in question really that strong —positive or negative— that it requires an extra mark? This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Writers should question the choices they make! But I think, more and more, common practice is just to omit the mark, rather than debate its merits. Fear of misusing the mark has led to not using it at all (I’m looking at you, journalist comrades). The accepted belief is that the exclamation mark is not worthy of most circumstances and vice versa. And what does this say about us— that we feel nothing is deserving of that extra morsel of expression?
I’m not saying the embargo on the exclamation mark is responsible for cultural apathy, but it certainly doesn’t help. We have a limited number of letters and symbols in the English language. The beauty of writing springs from permutations of expression: While the possibilities are vast, they technically aren’t infinite. Emasculating even one punctuation mark—even one as seemingly clumsy as the exclamation mark— is a mistake.
i love exclamation marks too! and i’m also a fan of “eats, shoots & leaves!” that book gave me punctuation confidence!
Thanks, Betty! I had to read it after I read your post about it this summer. It’s really helped me understand certain marks that have always troubled me: the colon and dash. Plus Lynne Truss is so funny!