An Exclamation Point is Like a Promise

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
~ Author unknown

exclamation pointAny regular reader of Writer Dad knows I rarely use the exclamation point. I don’t really have a rule in regard to its usage, but if I did, it would be something like this:

Deciding to use an exclamation point should be given the same sort of consideration one might use when making a promise, sparingly and only when meant.

My daughter often compels me to use the word promise, a word I love yet carry far too much respect for to use with frivolity. “Why won’t you just promise,” she’ll plead, eyes wide as a silver dollar and deep as bitter chocolate.

“Because I’m not positive I’ll be able to keep it.”

I’d much rather be able to say I never break a promise than cast the word about with abandon. My daughter might wish I’d promise more, but she knows well beyond the shadow of a doubt that every promise gliding from my lips is gilded in gold. Using an exclamation point with discretion, I would argue, imbues the same integrity to your writing.

I keep every promise I make and mean every exclamation point I use.

Text messaging, email, Twitter – new means of communication are refashioning our common tongue, yet as a season of too much rainfall reshapes a muddy slope, so will a decade of scattered symbols abbreviate out intent. I understand the evolution, and realize it’s a dubious platform to bridge positive parenting and potent writing, but I believe the lesson is apt. Just as lessening the frequency of our promises glazes each one with higher truth, minimizing our use of the exclamation point can only lead to an optimization of their overall effect.

A quick lesson in using the exclamation point

A sentence concluding with an exclamation point should either be an actual exclamation or a command, such as “Boo!,” “Wow!” or “Help!”

An exclamation point may also be used to convey the degree of a command.  “I need a glass of water.” has an entirely different tone than, “I need a glass of water!”

An exclamation point can be used to convey excitement. “I can’t wait until it’s my birthday!” or “We’re almost there!” In both examples, the single exclamation point actually conveys more than the words themselves.

The exclamation point, I believe, has become the most overworked mark of the modern tongue. Of course I have no room to speak, I abuse the comma and semi-colon like my pet set of red headed stepchildren and let’s not even start on my ample exploitation of alliteration. However, I believe using an exclamation point when unnecessary will only dim even the strongest sentence.

“What a nice car!” “I had a great lunch!” or “That was a funny thing to say!”  All would be far better minus the exclamation point. The best advice I can give is to read your work aloud and fill your breath with the strength an exclamation point suggests. If it sounds silly, it is.

Don’t make a promise you can’t keep or drop an exclamation point when it isn’t needed.

The Collective Inkwell Community Question: Do you believe the exclamation point is overused? Is there a piece of punctuation or a part of our language you do feel is a bit worn out?

Sean

31 responses to An Exclamation Point is Like a Promise

  1. David Cain

    Hi Sean,

    I dislike exclamation points too, and I generally don’t use them in my articles. But for some reason, I find myself using them more and more in my responses to comments. I’m not sure why. I even roll my eyes as I type them.

    I’m reminded of Kramer and Newman writing an accusatory letter to the sniffing accountant, with “exclamation points all over it.”

    Good post!!!

    David Cain’s last blog post..The Year With Two Summers

  2. Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)

    I have broken promises and yes it is very wrong. Much better to just shut up.

    I must say exclamation marks tend to make me feel uncomfortable. Probably because they draw attention. On the other hand, if I don’t use them I sometimes feel like I’m not serious enough about making a point. Is it okay to go with your gut feeling?

    Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)’s last blog post..My ‘Salad Days’

  3. LisaNewton

    I rarely use the exclamation point, even with writing, “Great post.” What I do tend to over use is the smilie face, especially in comments. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because I really like the post and don’t usually find the right words to express that, so I hope putting a smilie face expresses the look I have on my face…………………….:)

    LisaNewton’s last blog post..Travelin’ Local visits Robert Moses State Park – Long Island

  4. Marc - WelshScribe

    Amen!

    The exclamation mark is most definitely overused. Even worse are the people who make double, triple or even quadruple exclamation marks.

    There’s a long standing joke online – particularly amongst gamers – about the abuse of the exclamation mark:
    OMGWTF!!!111!oneoneone!!!one!!1! 😀

  5. Sean

    David: I’m actually with you here. As little as I use them in my actual writing, I use them quite a bit in both comments and emails. My sister and I both joke about the mark’s over use and then riddle our emails to one another with them. Beautiful irony.

    Paisley: It’s ALWAYS best to go with your gut feeling, at least in my most humble opinion.

    Lisa: I do the same thing. I think it’s because the written word, unlike verbal intonation, leaves a lot of room for inference. The happy face is a reassuring mark for sure.

    Marc: LOL!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. janice

    Strunk and White say “The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.” (They also said to avoid the passive voice and to play to an audience of one. 😉 God knows what they would have made of smileys! ) I know you live your truth, Sean, and like you, I prefer to define my own.

    I love exclamation marks – sometimes wish I was Spanish so I could use two! I think most readers can spot the fake wow!’s – fake comments for that matter. If folk hate my use of exclamation marks, they simply won’t read my writing or my comments and that’s fine with me. There’s a lot of other stuff in my writing that they’d probably also hate – italics, parenthesis, long paragraphs, ellipsis, indulgent hyphenation – so they’ll probably save themselves a lot of excruciating reading.

    Exclamation marks can express intensity, pitch and volume, intonational markers in speech whose absence in written language often leads to ambiguity. That’s why they’re used more often in comments boxes, where we tend to opt for shorter phrases more reminiscent of spoken language to connect. Some inner voices speak in accents more sing-song than others and some people have more fun, smile more in their comments than they do in their pieces.

    I say use what you like – be brave, be you! I’d rather be disliked for being me and using exclamation marks than live in someone else’s clothes or walk in someone else’s shadow.

    I enjoyed this, Sean, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot of agreement in the boxes below. I think it’s important, though, to be clear in our own minds if – and why – we choose to write with different styles in comments boxes, blogposts and longer pieces.

    janice’s last blog post..How to Harness the Power of Authenticity in Your Writing and Your Life

  7. Lori Hoeck

    LOL — “Of course I have no room to speak, I abuse the comma and semi-colon like my pet set of red headed stepchildren and let’s not even start on my ample exploitation of alliteration.”– I do like your humor and wordsmithing.

    I admit I’m guilty of overuse. Same with quotation marks and parenthesis. But now I’m slowly working to streamline and clean up my writing so the power of the words can shine through brightly.

    Lori Hoeck’s last blog post..No one wants this kind of relationship!

  8. Vered - MomGrind

    You remind me of a friend of mine who never ever uses exclamation points. When I asked her about it, she said “there’s not much in life that warrants them.” I know this gloomy reply isn’t what you’re trying to say here, but I do agree that they are overused.

    Vered – MomGrind’s last blog post..A Rose Garden

  9. Daisy

    Oh crud, I’m guilty of over-using the exclamation point.

    However, in my defense, I do get very excited in real life and begin talking and exclaiming with full-on exclamation marks, so perhaps that is why I feel compelled to use them. Thanks for the post and I will attempt to curb my enthusiasm a little. 🙂

    Daisy

    Daisy’s last blog post..In transition and feeling the pressure?

  10. Davina

    Hi Sean!!!! 🙂
    I’m always deleting exclamation marks when I edit my posts — and my comments too. The words “really” and “just” are overused, and then there’s the smiley faces. Don’t get me started, cause they pop up all the time. I think that because blogging is personal and conversational, we’re trying to add more voice and expression to the words.

    Davina’s last blog post..Positively Breathing — The Significant Victim

  11. Randi

    Guilty! Guilty!

    My biggest exclamation point sin also comes in the comments box. Don’t know why.
    Since reading this yesterday I have been more cognizant, though. I once read a friend’s autobiography manuscript that was riddled with exclamation points. Very annoying, because soon that was all I saw.

    Randi’s last blog post..

  12. Melissa Donovan

    Isn’t it funny how we all have punctuation marks that we favor and use frequently? I’m a big fan of the em dash. It’s also funny that we both wrote about exclamation marks this week. I guess punctuation is the topic du jour. Or the topic du semaine, rather. 🙂

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Punctuation: The Exclamation Mark

  13. Jannie Funster

    Now I’ll be reviewing all my posts to scrutinize each and every exclamation point therein!!!

    Whoops, take back those !!!!

    Shoot, too late!!!!!

    🙂

    But seriously, luckily I never abuse semi-colons because I have never had any earthly idea how to use them. When in doubt – avoid. Except for typing the first part of the smiley-face with them. 🙂

    Jannie Funster’s last blog post..Jannie CD Give-Away (whoo-hoo!)

  14. Mark Twain

    I couldn’t agree more! And upon asking them, neither can “our friends the Bermudians”!

    That’s why I only used ten in the first seven pages of “The Innocents Abroad”!

    Anymore than that and people might have begun to think I was being sarcastic!

  15. jan geronimo

    I reserve the right to use my exclamation point!!! I want the reassuring feeling I can take it out from my bag of tricks and use it, especially when a clear and present danger warrants its use.

    Nah. Of course, I know where you’re coming from. That’s a lovely thought – I haven’t thought it that way before. Writing that’s pockmarked with exclamatory points smacks of childishness. It’s as if the writer would like to get his way with readers by stomping his feet. Liable to hurt himself in the process. His rep rather.

    An exclamation point is a promise? Well, that’s strange – I always see it as a bark, an order, a call to arms. You may not have used it in this post, but I’m now going to check my post for signs of exclamatory abuse.

    jan geronimo’s last blog post..Guess My Last Nominee in Top 10 Influential Blogs to Win Free Cell Phone Airtime Credits

  16. A Curious Case of Writer’s Block

    […] top of that, in a failed try to cozy up to David,  I had attributed to him a superb post about the proper use of exclamation point written by Sean […]

  17. Get paid, inspired and informed | The Writing Base

    […] post, every word written by them that I come across. And my list is only 4 people long. His post, An exclamation point is like a promise made me stop and think about my own use of the exclamation mark. Do you use it too […]

  18. reyjr

    I tweeted this – “Do you read an exclamation point in your mind? I do. Hehe. I read “This.” differently from “THIS!!!” headache. ouch!”

    …and my friend Jan pointed me to this wonderfully written post. Hahaha!

  19. CT

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read. Thank you for putting this together. I have had continuous conversations with people using unnecessary exclamation points, more than one exclamation point, or using all caps.
    I usually reply to their emails or texts with, “Why are you yelling at me?”
    I cringe every time I see an email end with something like this: “PLEASE GET THIS BACK TO ME ASAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

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