August 20th, 2012 .


Pat Morden

In a recent New Yorker magazine I saw a cartoon that spoke to my heart.

It depicts a cosy domestic scene – a husband and wife sitting together working on their laptop computers. The husband, looking a little sad, is saying, “I’ve grown numb to exclamation points.”

To which I silently responded, “Well duh.”

Of all the crimes committed by email, the over-use of exclamation points is my personal bête noir.

What is an exclamation point? According to Wikipedia (the fount of all truth):  “. . . a punctuation mark usually used after an interjection or exclamation to indicate strong feelings or high volume (shouting), and often marks the end of a sentence.” Examples include:

What a lovely view you have here!

That’s fantastic!

Johnny, don’t touch that!


It’s a very precise and specific use – strong feelings, high volume. And here’s the important bit – there’s no conceivable reason to use more than one.

Why then are so many emails sprinkled with exclamation points, like pepper on Fettucine Alfredo? My guess is that it’s for exactly the same reason – to add a little zip to an otherwise bland offering. The problem is, it doesn’t work.  As the New Yorker cartoon suggested, we quickly become immune to the effect.

The next time you’re tempted to use an exclamation point, stop and think. Do you really have strong feelings about what you’re writing?  If not, is there another way to achieve the effect you’re after – say, mild surprise, pleasure, or the wink of an eye – by using words? And finally, if an exclamation point is the only thing that will work for you, stop after one! (Yes, strong feelings.)

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