Wednesday, August 18, 2004

5. What is the point of exclamation?!

For this brief entry, concerning the exclamation mark, I have decided to abandon the use of previously published sources and simply rant for a few paragraphs. The exclamation mark is one that we love, hate, and love to hate. I tend to hate it less than the people who use it unnecessarily, or in inappropriate environments. The question mark is used to give a statement, and even questions, audible emphasis. The exclamation point indicates the sound of someone yelling, or raising his or her voice to an abnormal tone. Much like expletives, it’s generally used more frequently in vernacular environments (like emails or chat rooms). It can also denote false sincerity, fake laughter, and cheesy enthusiasm. This entry will look at the presence of the mark in hallmark cards, emails, dialogue, and academic writing; but first, let us define the exclamation mark’s particular kind of emphasis.

The ! mark has an abrasive effect upon the eyes and the internal ear. It draws attention to the sentence preceding it by raising the authors voice to a yell; therefore, it is an example of “loud” emphasis. The quotation marks just used for the word loud would be an example of “silent” emphasis. Of course, these quotations also emphasize “loud,” and “silent” as terms that will have special definitions within this little essay. This form of emphasis is not only passive, rather than aggressive, it also has a narrow focus: it emphasizes a single word or a short phrase, NOT the entire phrase.

I included examples of using both italicized and uppercase letters to create emphasis in the above paragraph. Italics create silent emphasis, and all-caps (or uppercase words) create loud and aggressive emphasis. I must say that it is painful, and almost inexcusable, to see more than one type of emphasis used in the same sentence. Mixing the aggressive and passive written forms together is equivalent to whispering, and then yelling: it is both confusing and annoying. I committed the crime for instructional purposes only and cannot endorse this kind of writing—-unless, of course, you are emailing the phone company.

With these definitions and comparisons of emphasis in mind, let us examine the areas of writing where the question mark appears most frequently and why:

1. The HallmarkÔ card has to be the most commercial delivery system of the exclamation mark in existence. Happy Birthday Mom! Merry Christmas Jimmy! Happy New Year China! Because holidays are used to emphasize the importance of certain days, it seems to be a requirement to include exclamatory phrases in gift cards. Of course, the cards that say “all of our condolences for your loss,” leave out the exclamation mark to express a more serious and somber tone. Does this mean that the ! is an intrinsically happy mark? No, it can also express anger (shut up!), or terror (oh God, no!). In fact, the question mark has been so abused by companies like Hallmark—or advertisers who label everything as reduced!, or free!—that society has a mostly desensitized and cynical response to any request for excitement made by the exclamation mark. In itself the mark is not justification enough for celebration. Do question marks excite you? They almost never excite me.

2. The proliferation of the exclamation mark has most recently occurred due to electronic communication. The informal and conversational nature of most emails encourages many people to string together multiple phrases ending with exclamation marks:

Hey ___!

What’s up!

I’ve been typing for so long! I want to get up and go for a walk, but…oh my god! I can’t feel my legs!

Help me!


These authors are either too busy, or not creative enough to create emphasis by forming more complex sentences. If all of your sentences are short and choppy, exclamation marks—and other superficial means of highlighting textual phrases (all caps, or *stars*)—are the only available tools. Good old sentence variety opens the door to structural, and grammatical methods of emphasis. See what I mean.

Unfortunately, most people are not interested in either structure or grammar. People who are interested in the details of writing, like academic authors, almost never resort to the use of an exclamation mark for emphasis. This may be out of consideration for their colleagues who spend most of their time using “library voices,” and startle easily; then again, it may be that they are patient.

The ! is like the word “fuck;” it is an emphatic crutch.