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  • Writer's pictureRusty Pencil

What's the rule about using exclamation marks? (Er...don't.)

Updated: Jan 20

Punctuations marks at a party. A question mark, a semicolon and an exclamation mark talking to each other.

There’s a terrible disease going around at the moment. You’ve seen it in all the tabloids, websites and social media. Chances are it’s going to spread around the world. There seems no escaping it. It’s called Let’s See How Many Exclamation Marks I Can Use.

I’m not sure if there’s an official medical name for it, but maybe it’s something like Exclamationmarkitis on account of the repeated use of the offending finger. Yes! Exclamationmarkitis!!!!!!! And it’s everywhere! Here! There! In every email! In every Instagram post! In every tweet! On every Facebook page! There are probably a few hiding under your floorboards! Watch out! There’s an exclamation about!!!!

Why do people use so many of these damn things? It’s like some strange disorder, some form of nervous tic. The moment they finish a sentence they’re compelled to press that key. Is it an Instagram law? Is it strict Twitter etiquette? Does it state in their Terms & Conditions that you must end at least one sentence in your post with an exclamation mark or six, or else you’ll be shot? It’s a terrible habit, like picking your nose.

Informal writing shouldn’t mean irritating writing.

Exclamation marks - or exclamation points in American English - are best left out in formal writing. As an old advertising hack, I was instructed never to use them. Not once did I ever use an exclamation mark in my copywriting. Screamers, as we used to call them, were best left to the tabloid press and comics. But when it comes to bashing out a friendly email, text, WhatsApp or pigeon message, it still does require the writer to treat the reader as intelligent. If a sentence is well written, the reader gets it.

Invariably, there’s no need for a screamer. Also, this reflects badly on the writer. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once put it ‘Cut all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.’ And as we all know, most people’s jokes on social media are fucking shit. Or should I say, fucking shit!!!

And there’s the TikTok crowd who take offence if you don’t use one. If someone receives an email from their boss with ‘Well done.’ instead of ‘Well done!!!’ they immediately feel unloved and want to jump off a cliff. To them, a non-existent exclamation mark suggests a lack of sincerity or perhaps downright sarcasm. In which case, one should re-write it, but that seems to be too much trouble these days.

Donald Trump and the exclamation mark! Bad!!!

There’s something oddly childish about using them all the time. It’s like a toddler shouting and demanding attention, and we know how irritating that can be. Take Donald Trump, for example (and please do). Of all the toddlers in the world, he’s the one who shouted the loudest on social media with his endless use of the exclamation mark, until Twitter took away his rattle and sent him upstairs early to bed. His use of the exclamation mark is legendary but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps Trump’s MAGA slogan should be rewritten to Make America Grate Again!!!!!!! Be careful about using them, as highlighted by this BBC Culture article What overusing exclamation marks say about you.

Happy birthday! Is it? Well, bugger me. I never knew.

I understand the occasional need to create some sense of urgency, excitement or surprise but sometimes there’s no logic in their use. The greeting card market is cluttered with illogical cards. If you were to give me a birthday card with ‘Happy Birthday! Enjoy your Day!’ I’d be slightly perplexed.

For one thing, why the surprise? Do you think I don’t know it’s my birthday?

And ‘Enjoy your day!’ sounds like an order. Or is it sarcasm? And if you were trying to convey excitement are you saying I should cheer the fuck up? This is another downside of exclamation marks: they can be ambiguous, as described by Mark Forsyth in The Spectator.

If my lover gave me a Valentine’s card with ‘Happy Valentine! I love your massive penis!!!!’ is she taking the piss about the size of my penis? Is she not satisfied? It’s this sort of thing that initiates divorce proceedings. If on the other, the card read ‘I love your massive penis’ then all would be well with the world. And my penis.

One could say I’m reading too much into this as it’s generally obvious what the writer is conveying, but it’s the fact exclamation marks are used so frequently, and without thought, that they’ve become ineffective and pointless. Recently, I saw a long Instagram post that had one in every sentence. It made no sense. It made my eyes wobble.

That said, I’m not against the exclamation mark. Used well, and sparingly, exclamation marks can be effective. But unlike the case of the chocolate factory worker allowed to gorge on chocolate on their first week so that they eventually get sick of it, the exclamation mark user loves it even more. They can’t get enough of it. Give them a bucketload of the damn things and they’ll dive in head-first and have a million exclamation mark orgasms. Exclamationmarkitis lives on. They say you can have too much of a good thing. Bollocks!!!!

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