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When exclamation marks go bad!!!!!

2009 October 30

Firstly, a confession:  I’m a hypocrite. Ask me what I think of exclamation marks (although sadly no one ever does) and I’ll tell you that they are the scourge of the publishing world. At best, exclamation marks in editorial copy make me cringe. At worst, they make my blood boil.  Particularly when used to excess. But that doesn’t stop me writing emails to friends that go something like:

“Hey! How are you? I can’t believe what happened last night!! Did you manage to sort it all out in the end?! Well, better go!

My point here is not to divulge the riveting emails I send, but to note that when it comes to using exclamation marks – there’s a time and a place. Littering informal correspondence with exclamation marks is a personal choice. In fact, in this context exclamation marks arguably add tone and personality.  They liven up the text and make you sound cheery, upbeat, human. The same email without any exclamation marks may seem deadpan and Eeyorish.

But the rule is: when writing professional copy, use exclamation marks sparingly.  Why? Well for starters, using too many can make you sound a bit giddy.  Perhaps not the professional image you were hoping for. What’s more, writers mistakenly use them when trying to muster up buzz and excitement – the literary equivalent of party poppers and silly hats.

Come to the University of Kent! There’s so much to see and do in our leafy green campus! You’ll be spoilt for choice!

Let the reader be the judge of how exciting your proposition is – without trying to persuade them with punctuation.  If it’s interesting, it will still be interesting sans exclamation mark.  A quick Google search on the topic throws up this quote by the essayist Lewis Thomas which frankly says it all:

The problem is that once you allow one or two in, they tend to multiply, scattering themselves everywhere, expostulating, sounding off, making believe that phrases have a significance beyond what the words themselves are struggling to say. They irritate the eyes. They are, as well, pretentious, self-indulgent and in the end almost always pointless. If a string of words is designed to be an astonishment, a veritable terror of a string, the words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point at the end like a Toyota salesman on TV.
(Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher, Little, Brown and Company, 1990)

So there you have it. In editorial copy, the words should speak for themselves and the loud and proud exclamation mark should only be used with consideration and caution.  Well, glad that’s all sorted!

Sorry. Glad that’s all sorted.

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