education 16 May 2014 01:23 pm

Emphasis on the exclamation

Whenever I write about exclamation points, which is more often than you might imagine, I get a larger-than-average reader response.

Larger-than-average, however, must be taken in context. Generally, I receive little to no feedback on this column.

I’m like the Maytag repairman of writers, honestly. Even one or two emails is a comparative landslide.

Maybe the “heavy” feedback is because so many people use exclamation points in almost all their sentences that they believe I’m attacking them personally. Maybe they think I’m the Punctuation Police and have the power to issue citations. If only.

This time of year is especially bad for exclamation-point misuse. “Little Percival is graduating college!!!!” reads one such Facebook message (with the name changed to protect the overly excited). It is accompanied by two photos. In the first, baby Percy mugs for the camera, his diaper sagging. In the second, an older, wiser Percy with a tattoo sleeve and approximately 10 pounds of metal affixed to his eyebrows, nose and lips hoists a beer stein (filled, I assume, with lemonade) above his head.

Undoubtedly, if Percy attends medical school, his well-wishers will matriculate to a fifth exclamation point. Marriage will couple him to a sixth, and his first child will deliver an unprecedented seventh. By the time Percy becomes a grandparent for the first time — long after this crotchety columnist is dead (a death that will be announced by my legion of fans with any number of exclamation points) and long after Percy’s tattoo sleeve has stretched into an amorphous, gelatinous mass of inky scribbles, like a TV picture in the wrong ratio — the news will warrant upwards of 15 exclamation points.

And that’s my rationale for limiting them. An exclamation point signals emotion. Extra exclamation points do not signal more emotion; they merely devalue a useful piece of punctuation. An honest expression of joy, disgust or dismay becomes a contest. I can imagine divorced parents dueling on social media about who loves their tiny tax-deduction more. Their weapon of choice? The exclamation point. “You think you love Elektra? Your 36 exclamation points after ‘Happy Birthday’ are nothing. I have more than forty. Top that!”

(By the way, if Mourning Becomes Elektra, whom does evening become?)

My own rule, as my students can tell you, is to limit exclamation points to two a year. As I’ve said before, sometimes the rule changes to two or three a semester. The exact number doesn’t matter. The point is to keep them manageable so that when they are used, they mean something.

But I’ve been slipping. I recently wished a colleague good luck on an impending surgery and affixed an exclamation point after “Get Well.” The expression looked too lonely with only a period to accompany it. Last month, I posted a message on Facebook and used two exclamation points at the end of two successive sentences. Somebody wrote to give me grief. If memory serves, she called me a hypocrite and used three exclamation points.

I was tempted to respond, “Do as I say, not as I do” and punctuate it with a bold-faced exclamation point, but I restrained myself. That would have put me at negative-two exclamation points for the year. Frivolous and unnecessary.

I know I’m losing the war, but I’m a sucker for lost causes. In a somewhat-related situation, I am trying to revive correct semicolon use. I tell my students the semicolon is the chocolate mousse of desserts — rich in small amounts, but sickening when too much is eaten.

Use a semicolon correctly at least once in every written missive to impress your audience. (See my sixth paragraph.) Use it incorrectly and prepare for their wrath or, more likely, their indifference. (The semicolon is the polar opposite of the exclamation point in that regard.)

But even the slight chance of reader wrath is better than indifference, says the Maytag repairman. So; I’m; trying; something; new; today!!!

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

One Response to “Emphasis on the exclamation”

  1. on 21 May 2014 at 1.Shelly said …

    Congratulations on your best columnist award. I so look forward to your column each week. Excellent writing and very brave to speak your mind. Shelly Sponseller

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