Saying little – with much emphasis

A  columnist for The Economist takes on the question that has confounded sorority girls, prolific emailers and rookie receptionists for years: When to use an exclamation point?

It’s difficult to receive more than half a dozen emails without getting at least as many exclamation points.

  • “Thanks for your help!”
  • “Lunch is here!!”
  • “Have a nice day!!!”

Yes, we certainly do like to shout out about even the most mundane, don’t we?

The Economist writer understands that less is more when it comes to exclamation points:

Few writers know when to employ an exclamation point. It is a tricky bit of punctuation, frankly. I rue its appearance in e-mails, as it raises the bar of enthusiasm to a level that is quite difficult to match without feeling silly. The problem is that they are either used guilelessly or with great self-consciousness. Russian novelists are magnificent with exclamation marks. Fashion journalists use them like gaudy accessories on an already questionable outfit. I hate exclamation marks, usually, except in those rare moments when they are revelatory.

Don’t get me wrong; there is indeed a place for the occasional exclamation point, as in:

“The dog just ate most of the Thanksgiving turkey and then upchucked on the Oriental rug!

“Then an addle-minded boy slipped in the upchuck!

“That addle-minded boy’s drunk uncle saw him slip in the upchuck and laughed so hard he fell over backward and knocked himself out!”

All worthy of exclamation points, particularly when it’s your dog, rug or child.

But, for the most part, F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right when he said, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

The best advice I ever saw when it came to the punctuation mark in question was thus: “Writers are allowed three exclamation points … in their entire lives.”

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