It’s a relatively simple punctuation mark — a bold one without a lot of confusing rules — yet it’s still grossly overused.
It gives our sentences pizzazz. It emphasizes dialogue when one character shouts or snaps at another. And it gives copy editors headaches.
The exclamation mark sure packs a punch.
The Exclamation Mark!
This punctuation mark has two legitimate names: exclamation mark or exclamation point. It adds emphasis to a sentence, indicating emotional stress that could be caused by fear, anger, joy, or some other form of excitement.
The exclamation mark is often found after an interjection (a word or short phrase that is emotion-based and grammatically isolated). The following are examples of the exclamation mark used with interjections:
- Stop it!
This punctuation mark is often used at the end of an exclamation, or emphatic sentence. Here are some examples of an exclamation mark used with emphatic sentences:
- I can’t wait!
- You’re so lucky!
- I’ve had enough!
- I read it twice!
- Yes, I understand!
Seems pretty straightforward, right?
How (Not) to Use an Exclamation Mark
People love to use exclamation marks liberally. We’ve all received an email from an emphatic friend whose every sentence is buried between slick columns of exclamation marks:
OMG!!! You’ll never guess what happened!!! I got accepted to my first choice college!!! Wow!!! And it’s a good thing too!!! Because I really need to learn how to punctuate my sentences!!!
While this type of usage is acceptable in casual correspondence and other informal written material, it is absolutely forbidden in serious prose and formal compositions. That includes articles, essays, and short stories. Poets may take creative liberties but should use the exclamation mark with care.
Too many exclamation marks — either bunched together or peppered throughout a single piece — make reading difficult. That’s right, too much unnecessary punctuation, like other grammatical infractions, create speed bumps that distract the reader. And we never want to distract our readers.
Additionally, overuse of this punctuation mark actually reduces its impact. The first exclamation mark on a page will be read with emphasis and each one thereafter will lose impact. Keep them scarce and they will retain their power.
Remember, overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and reduces the exclamation mark’s meaning.
Are there exceptions?
Yes. Comic books.
Though the exclamation mark is not complex, there are some interesting tidbits of trivia that follow this punctuation mark around:
- Typewriters didn’t have exclamation marks until the 1970s. Prior to their addition to the keyboard, an exclamation mark was generated by typing a full stop (period). The typist would then backspace and add an apostrophe over the period.
- This punctuation mark appears frequently in proper names, such as Yahoo!, Jeopardy!, Oklahoma!, and Moulin Rouge! One writer, Elliot S! Maggin, added it to the spelling of his name in the 1970s.
- The exclamation mark by itself, on a sign or label, acts as a warning and may indicate a hazard.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
How frequently do you use the exclamation mark in your own writing? Do you use it differently in casual versus formal writing? Is it your favorite (or least favorite) punctuation mark? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.