Let’s Talk About Exclamation Points!!!

Hey, look at me! Look at me!

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an exclamation point is “a mark ! used especially after an interjection or exclamation to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling.” The Random House Unabridged Dictionary says it this way: an exclamation point is used to indicate intensity of emotion, loudness or even “a speaker’s dumbfounded astonishment.” In the typesetting/printing world, this punctuation mark is appropriately known as a screamer or a bang…sometimes even a gasper or a startler.

Exclamation points are the most transparent, least subtle punctuation marks available. They’re the equivalent of the laugh track in syndicated sitcoms like “What’s Happening!!” and “Charles in Charge.” Since these sitcoms aren’t funny in any way, the producers crank up the artificial laughter in hopes of tricking the hapless audience into believing otherwise. And like a laugh track, exclamation points reek of desperation: “Wait! Don’t go! I have something interesting to say, if you’ll just bear with me! Really!”

Now, in fiction writing, the unwritten rule is to allow yourself one exclamation point per novel. While that may be a bit on the fascist side, it’s a good rule of thumb to use exclamation points thoughtfully. I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of peppering my prose with gaspers like Emeril Lagasse stewing up a pot of eight-alarm chili. This is thanks to the one guy who can get away with tons of exclamation points: my literary idol, Tom Wolfe (imagine me here genuflecting), who wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, I am Charlotte Simmons and A Man in Full, not to mention The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, as well as countless others.

One of the things that makes Mr. Wolfe’s writing so evocative is his rule-breaking use of punctuation, so like a good little copycat, I did as he did. But in my fiction writers’ group, Terri played Lloyd Bentsen to my Dan Quayle: Said she, “You, sir, are no Tom Wolfe.” Okay, so she didn’t say it exactly like that, but she was telling me that I don’t have nearly the literary chops Wolfe does, and I have therefore not earned the right to go outside the bounds of punctuational law. Neither, most likely, have you.

In marketing and business writing, the exclamation point is meant to stimulate excitement where there is none. It’s like hitting the reader over the head with a rubber mallet rather than using the proper combination of words. It’s lazy and it’s annoying, just like the aforementioned laugh track. Nobody wants to be told when to laugh. They want to be shown something truly humorous and to laugh spontaneously. In the same way, readers of marketing copy want to be persuaded with facts and flair. To wit: which is more effective?

Snatz Widgets are the best in the world!!!

Snatz Widgets won the 2007 International Widget Award.

Here’s a word for you: Duh.

So if you want to generate excitement, or convey awe, terror or volume, I’ll tell you what I used to tell my kids when they were two and prone to tantrums: use your words.


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