Pity the poor exclamation mark. Or, to put it more vigorously: Pity the poor exclamation mark!
The slender item of punctuation has gone through a vigorous transformation, thanks to the advent of social media and the like, in which it is employed so often it seems in danger of losing its meaning and influence. This is understandable when it comes to outlets like Facebook, in which the whole idea is to post something exciting, and what type of excitement is it that doesn’t deserve an exclamation!
The exclamation point was once not used to such a great degree — to the point where if a Facebook post doesn’t include an exclamation mark there appears to be something missing. Without it the post looks drab, unexciting. Where’s the elan!
I had the honor once of meeting William Zinsser, who died in 2015 at the age of 92. It was at the R.J. Julia Independent Bookseller, in Madison, in 2005. His “On Writing Well” should be on the desk of anyone who wants to do so. In it, he advises a cautious approach to using the exclamation mark, as in avoiding the use unless you have to. Though it remains good advice, it seems an old-fashioned idea considering the punctuation marks current exalted status.
There are at least two ways of looking at language, as far as I can figure it. One is the prescriptive, which urges conformity, as in “don’t use no double negatives in a single sentence.” The other is descriptive, an attempt to gauge the use of language as it evolves. You could say one is for the classroom, the other outside — and in the digital world we’re all outside.
I’m serious in suggesting that there will come a day, if it hasn’t already, when the tweets of President Trump will be subject to scholarly study. Regardless of how you feel about what the president has to say, it’s clear that he’s used a relatively new form of communication in a new and most powerful way, as both a presidential contender and now while he’s in office, reaching millions — and, yes, the tweets are full of exclamation points(!). There was the suggestion that the news media should stop covering the president’s tweets, but how is that possible when that’s how the leader of the free world chooses to communicate?
So, where do we go when it comes to punctuation and grammar in general? The poet E.E. Cummings, among others, made great use of grammatical and punctuational acrobatics. Are we all now just following suit in our texts, posts and tweets?
For a moment I’ll turn to a passage by Lynne Truss, the English author of “Eats Shoots & Leaves”: “Even in the knowledge that our punctuation has arrived at its present state by a series of accidents; even in the knowledge that there are at least seventeen rules for the comma, some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don’t know the difference between who’s and whose, and whose bloody automatic ‘grammar checker’ can’t tell the difference either.”
Exclamation marks appear often in letters to the editor. Fairly often, a letter writer will feel compelled, along with putting significant words in ALL CAPS, to end a sentence with more than a single exclamation mark, sometimes as many as three, sometimes even more (!!!-!). Guided by the assumption that if needed at all a single exclamation mark will do the trick, my practice has been to delete the exclamation marks suspected of being excessive.
But after recently stumbling into an article in The New York Times I’m not so sure. In a 2012 opinion piece (the date shows that this has been going on for a while now) Ben Yagoda writes about “The Point of Exclamation” (“Mocking this punctuational predilection is easy and fun.”)
“Habitual e-mailers, texters and posters convey quite precise nuances through punctuation,” writes Yagoda, “which is after all one of the points of punctuation.” (hello, ee cummings). Yagoda mentions a friend’s 12-year-old daughter, who observes that a single exclamation point “is fine, as is three, but never two.” She doesn’t know why, that’s just the way it is.
So maybe our letter writers are on to something.
Anyway, not much of this is very clear, but what seems to be clear is that perhaps like never before new, evolving means of communication are changing the language, opening new worlds of expression. In the 60s it was bell-bottom jeans and long hair. Today it’s punctuation(!!!).
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213! Or, firstname.lastname@example.org!!!