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Our Exclamatory World


I probably went decades without using an exclamation point. My form of writing is supposed to be informative and not emotional so the exclamation point doesn’t find much use in a newspaper.

But move over to the Internet and the world warms up. I have been littering my messages with exclamation points for a couple of years now even though I feel guilty every time I reach into my punctuation toolbox and come out with one. And now—OMG!—now I have even dropped a few periods at the end of my texted sentences—although I feel guilty about that, too! What is happening?!

Some time ago, I read that ending sentences in text messages with a period is considered bad form, even rude. One source even termed the period as “hostile.” Huh? How can a little black dot at the end of a group of words, whose only mission in life is to clarify an idea, be inherently hostile?

I find a certain irony in the way written language is being manipulated by social media. Over the past five millennia the written language evolved progressively to produce clarity. We moved from purely symbolic representations (think hieroglyphics) to Latin texts written in scriptio continua, a continuous string of characters without any spaces to mark word boundaries. Without spaces between words and nary a punctuation mark to be had, interpretation of a text could be difficult forcing readers to rely on context for understanding. Since my context would be different from yours, the room for misunderstanding was rife.

Some say it was not until the 7th century that Isidore of Seville introduced the comma, period and colon. There were more unsung linguistic heroes in subsequent centuries, particularly after the printing press was invented. Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer-intellectual, invented the semicolon thus introducing a sophisticated, if under-used, pause in writing. The exclamation point and the question mark became common during the Middle Ages, finally allowing us to create emphasis and make it clear when we were asking a question. Such progress!

Now we are throwing it all away and going back 5,000 years to the use of pictorial symbols—emoticons—to spell out our messages. It’s those tiny keys on our phones, of course, that have caused us to become more epigrammatic, curtailing our written expression and making the exclamation point the king of punctuation to express excitement, bonhomie, enthusiasm and more.

Hardly a press release reaches my desk that doesn’t include one or more. Some writers end virtually every sentence with one. Surely, we must be the most eager and anticipatory generation in the history of mankind, seeking stimulation everywhere.

As late as 1997, exclamation points were viewed with reserve by grammarians. “Don't use an exclamation mark unless it's absolutely necessary,” advised one source. Others cautioned that overuse of the exclamation point could appear unprofessional or indicate the writer was not treating his or her subject with sufficient gravitas.

There’s no denying that social media has transformed the way we interact with each other. I, like so many others, have fallen prey to using it as a convenient way to communicate without interrupting the flow of my day. And, equally, there is no denying that language is continually evolving but I find some of the conclusions about the use of punctuation today to be specious.

I see the period as a stalwart soldier, standing firm against misinterpretation, while the exclamation point is, I feel, is a bit of a huckster, meant to stir emotions, entice a response, perhaps convey a feeling not really felt.

Medical research confirms that the exclamation point can be the perfect snake oil salesman. It activates your brain’s medial prefrontal cortex which is associated with processing emotional and alarming information. This process contributes to the reason you might be drawn to exclamation points: Their presence prompts more active reading, leading to increased engagement and comprehension.

It is a generational divide, I fear. And not just between parents and children. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet, contends that punctuation online and in texts is more for effect than formality and is affected not just by chronological age but by Internet age, as determined by what social network the user hung out on first when he or she first got online.

“If you're somebody who's spending all of their time on, like, old school forums these days versus somebody who's hanging out on Instagram or on TikTok, you're going to have different types of exposure to have different types of experiences,” she said. “And that's going to lead to interpreting different types of punctuation marks in different ways.”

McCulloch urges tolerance when it comes to the nuances of digital punctuation. Personally, I think I will cling to the past and try to make my written messages comprehensible with the use of the simple period at the end of sentences and eschew the false sentiment of the shuck-and-jiving exclamation point!