Ascent of the Exclamation Point (>!<)


If you are New Journalist Tom Wolfe, you use a great many exclamation points in your professional writing. It’s what you do. If you are Mark Twain, you do not. Twain said that using an exclamation point was like laughing at your own joke.

Irving A. Greenfield, Jean Auel, Stephen King and Tom Clancy use them; Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham and Eric Van Lustbader, almost never. (King is the one who skimps on adverbs)

In all formal writing, novels included, bright, sparkly punctuation was once considered the hallmark of amateurs and lazy people. Literature for young readers—all the way through middle grade and young adult—doesn’t use as much description as you would find in say, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. It has to move fast; it has to employ shorthand. In novels for adults, as any English teacher will tell you, you have all the room in the world for context, so you have no excuse for using elementary tools. You can put down the bullhorn because people will know what you mean without it.

But if we are talking about trends, there is an indisputable movement ruffling the feathers of English teachers and grammarians everywhere. Call it: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Exclamation Mark. Adults are pressed for time, accustomed to quick-paced forms of entertainment, and are reading middle grade and young adult books. The exclamation point, as we call it in the USA, now has an extended familiarity to adult readers for that very reason. Expectations began to change in the 1990’s. People don’t even know what you mean anymore if you don’t use them.

Then we have another trend reinforcing the first. Call it Harry Potter and the Deathly Text. Millennials are coming of age believing that if you care about the person you are talking to and the issues they hold dear, you use a lot of exclamation points to express yourself. They like their books that way too. To them, it’s not just confusing when people don’t use exclamation points, it’s also rude.

My prescription: If you are an editor over 40, allow between one and zero exclamation points per hundred thousand words. For everyone else, do what feels right. But! Don’t’! Be! Ridiculous!

P.S. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, copyright 2006, a marvelous best seller, uses many exclamation points.

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