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by JOSH

On How the Exclamation Point is Ruining the World

POSTED April 15, 2011
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I am trying very hard to remove the exclamation point from use in my writing in every form. I am finding this difficult. There, right there just a few words back, instead of that period I was very tempted to leave an exclamation point. Overcoming this urge wasn’t hard; I know the exclamation point has any place in professional writing. I am no dingbat. I grappled with that decision only before I realized this may not be a lighthearted situation.

Using an exclamation point to express precisely how troublesome I’m finding abandoning its use is patently jokey, and follows the Schecky Greene school. But I’m not entirely convinced this is a Schecky Greene-type of problem. That I am having to give real thought about whether a particular type of punctuation is something I want out of my life suggests to me that this issue is far more existential than Schecky Greene may have ever touched upon.

Normally, I don’t let it in my pro writing, except in rare cases where I’m clearly using the exclamation point in an ironic, mocking way, as in the title of this post. This I recently found, is the worst possible use of the exclamation point, according to the author Chuck Klosterman, who points out that irony has muddied what the exclamation point is meant to express: sincere surprise; elation; genuine, unashamed expressiveness.

In fact, the exclamation point is a rearrangement of the normal spelling of the Latin, “Io,” an expression of joy, with the “I” stacked above the “o” to form “!”. In 1553, printer John Day first devised this method, ostensibly to save space and to reduce any run on with other words.

So I realize now that by using the exclamation point in an ironic way, I am contributing to its dilution, its loss of innocence, and indeed the loss of innocence of the entire world, and that I am terrorizing the reader and cultivating fear and insecurity and exclusiveness. I will probably continue to use it that way sometimes, but I will be aware of these things now when I do.

This is not where my concerns lay. It isn’t in my actual writing that the exclamation point is troubling; instead it has become extremely pervasive in my minor, everyday communications: email, Facebook posts, tweets and the like. For many years I had no trouble with this, I just didn’t use the exclamation point. It did not exist in my realm. Now, however, I am indoctrinated into corporate culture and I have come to know its use.

From this use I have noticed two insidious things about the exclamation point. 1) Its use is self-perpetuating: Its use leads to further use in that when one leads others with whom one is communicating to expect the use of an exclamation point in some circumstances, for example,  in an expression of thanks, when an exclamation point is absent in that circumstance it suggests something grave is going on, e.g., either I am upset with the person whom I failed to thank with an exclamation point and am punishing them by withholding it or there is something wrong with me and I am sending a secret message that I am glum by saying thanks in much the same way Eeyore the jackass does, and 2) It is communally reinforced: When the exclamation point is in wide use in a culture or group, its use becomes standardized and may also multiply, e.g., an email is received with an exclamation point expressing thanks and the receiver feels that the thanks is really due on the other end, the receiver will likely be moved to reply to with something that negates the original thanks, a reversal of direction in that thanks and not one, but possibly two or more exclamation points to indicate the person replying has just written louder and is therefore more thankful than the person who originally expressed thanks.

All of this is, of course, madness, but it is insidious madness of the type not easily shrugged off. It clings to the back of the neck like some octopus or squid. By choosing to eschew the exclamation point, I am about to enter into a period where there will likely be a fair amount of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Yet I feel that I will emerge on the other side better understood. I can’t help but feel that I am also doing a favor for the very people I communicate with by shedding the exclamation point; no longer will I treat them as cow that I electrically prod beyond a fence of meaning that I’ve constructed. I will allow them to graze free within their own minds to determine on their own terms exactly what I mean and to come to believe that a period is just a period and not an expression of dourness, that the period is normal life; it is the exclamation point that is abnormal.

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