We have many punctuation marks in the English language, but we use a handful most every day. Quick, name them—period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark, colon, semicolon, single and double quotation marks, apostrophe, hyphen. We also have the less often needed ellipsis, brackets, parentheses, dash, slash, and braces.
Let’s look at the exclamation mark, which appears to be a favorite based on what I see in editing people’s work.
An interesting note is that the typewriter didn’t have a dedicated key for the exclamation mark until 1970. Do you remember that? We had to type a period and then backspace and put an apostrophe over the period. Another fascinating tidbit—several studies found women use more exclamation marks than men. Because we’re more emotional? Who knows.
The creative writer’s bible, Chicago Manual of Style, says, “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.” The most important word in that explanation is sparingly.
I love this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald and wholeheartedly agree with him: “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
Hear, hear! All punctuation marks have a purpose, and so does the exclamation mark. The problem with it arises when people write dull sentences and try to add energy to them by tacking on an exclamation mark to the end. Not a good solution.
The little girl was yelling at her baby brother!
Okay, we’re asking that poor little exclamation mark to do a big job. How could we choose better words and details to make the sentence come alive?
Red-faced and crying, the little girl yelled at her baby brother, “Don’t touch my toys.”
We made the verb show action and gave the reader a sense of being there with dialogue and a bit of description. Do you see how picking better verbs and adding details can make a statement emphatic without an exclamation mark?
And hear this—never, ever, ever use multiple exclamation marks.
Try this. Go through a piece you’ve written recently and circle all the exclamation marks. How many did you find? Too many? Only one or two? Now rewrite those sentences and see how you can make the sentence emphatic without overworking that poor exclamation mark. Let me know what you learned in the comments section below.