Any student who has suffered through my class knows my policy on exclamation points: You get only two a year, so use them wisely.
Actually, the quantity and duration change every time I tell it, and savvy students — the ones who aren’t sleeping or glancing surreptitiously at cellphones every few minutes — sometimes call me out. “Didn’t you say last week that we get two exclamation points each quarter, Mr. S?” (Almost nobody can pronounce Schillig without making it sound like Austrian currency, so Mr. S is acceptable shorthand. Maybe I should change my name to Euro.)
Yes, it’s true I inform some students that they can use three exclamation points a year, some four. In a moment of unexpected largesse, I once offered up five, which is unbridled craziness.
The exact number doesn’t matter as much as the expectation that budding writers think of the exclamation point as an endangered species (something to be cherished) or a rich dessert (something to be enjoyed only occasionally). To throw in one more metaphor, if periods are common nails of the punctuation toolbox, then exclamation points are drywall screws — expensive, more difficult to use, and appropriate for only certain types of sentences and situations.
If a piece of information is so earthshaking that it will rattle the souls of all who read it, an exclamation point is warranted. “Martians Invade!” or “World Ends!” are such headlines. “Mary’s dating Tom again!” is not, in most cases — unless you’re Mary or Tom.
Short of impending, immediate violence — “I’ll kill you!” — most exclamation points are unnecessary. If you’ve written a piece well, the emotion is conveyed without the need for special punctuation, and readers are better served by deciding for themselves how much emotion a given statement deserves.
I also make it clear to students that no matter how many exclamation points I allow them, under no circumstances should the marks be used simultaneously. Even “World Ends!” doesn’t merit two exclamation points, because what do you do you write the next day? “World Returns!!”?
For the record, I must also acknowledge my own hypocrisy. While I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Exclamation League, I am simultaneously and contradictorily a member of the slippery Emoticons Embracers Ltd. (EEL), which supports the use of smiley faces and sad faces created with punctuation. So recipients of my electronic messages are often besieged with or — but never or because I find noses to be a waste of perfectly good hyphens.
Now, granted, I never use emoticons in serious writing, where I want words alone to represent me. But email and texting are different: They’re kissing cousins to verbal communication, where audiences often derive meaning from a speaker’s facial expressions or hand gestures. Minus these, the well-placed smiley face does yeoman’s work. A reader may be offended by “You’re crazy,” but never by “You’re crazy :),” which excuses a multitude of linguistic sins.
In other words, I’m not going to risk an angry spouse by typing “What a stupid idea” in a text message when I can instead put, “What a stupid idea :)” and provide myself with an automatic JK defense, which is admissible in most courts.
(I’ve never had a chance to use it in writing, but I’m fascinated by the emoticon for Slash, the ex-guitar player of Guns N’ Roses, which looks like this: iiii];) and represents the guitarist’s signature hat and cigarette, but only if you cock your head like the RCA dog can you see it.)
Further examples of hypocrisy can be found in my hatred of all instant-message abbreviations, including LOL, B4N, IMHO, NSFW, YOLO and the above-mentioned JK.* None of these aids communication; they are shortcuts for lazy writers, an argument that could also be made for emoticons. Hence, the hypocrisy.
So to summarize my writing advice in reverse order: don’t use abbreviations, emoticons are OK unless you’re writing the Great American Novel or a formal paper, and go easy on the exclamation points, to the tune of about two a year (unless I’ve told you more at another time).
Otherwise, you will incur the wrath of an English teacher!!! Or at least one’s righteous indignation. Well, this one’s, anyway.
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*For the Internet illiterate, these are laugh out loud, ‘bye for now, in my honest opinion, not safe for work (an off-color joke, for example), you only live once and just kidding.
Originally published July 5, 2012, in The Alliance Review.