The Abused Exclamation Mark

From sur­prise to hap­pi­ness, from anger to vio­lence, from anguish to tragedy, the excla­ma­tion mark punc­tu­ates a vari­ety of human expres­sion. When a char­ac­ter in your fic­tion says “Stop!”, your read­er hears the shout; while “Stop.” con­veys there is a calm author­i­ty behind the order. A com­mand to “Jump” may not achieve it’s pur­pose; “Jump!” may actu­al­ly pro­pel one to do so.

Sad­ly, this unique and extra­or­di­nary pow­er of the excla­ma­tion mark has great­ly dimin­ished in con­tem­po­rary writ­ing. The elu­sive semi­colon lies at one end of the spec­trum, the abused excla­ma­tion marks the oth­er end. Like a can­cer in our mod­ern lan­guage, it seems to mul­ti­ply for­ev­er. A sin­gle mark no longer con­veys the lev­el of excite­ment or shock as it once used to, it now needs sev­er­al mul­ti­ples of itself to cre­ate the mag­ic.

There is an odd­i­ty about these mul­ti­ples that I have nev­er under­stood: they occur as a group of either 3 or 5 or more, rarely 2 or 4. I hope in vain that some­day, the sin­gle excla­ma­tion mark will get even with those who so abuse it.

Now we even encounter cas­es where the num­ber of marks used out­num­ber the let­ters it was intend­ed to punc­tu­ate, as in “OMG!!!!!!!”, thus becom­ing more dis­rup­tive than even the paren­the­sis.

Jew­el­ry can embell­ish, but not make a woman beau­ti­ful; gar­nish­ing can enhance fla­vor, not cre­ate it. Embell­ish­ment can dimin­ish the orig­i­nal idea. The excla­ma­tion mark can punc­tu­ate con­tent, not sub­sti­tute it. Alas, like an alco­holic who is nev­er sat­is­fied with just one drink, pop­u­lar lan­guage is rarely sati­at­ed with just one excla­ma­tion mark. The excla­ma­tion mark is the new opi­ate of the mass­es.

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