For the last three years, I have been studying the history of the exclamation point — and over the course of my research (which began with a study of parentheses) time and again I have come across flak against !. I began to wonder whether the exclamation point was really as “breathless, almost childish” as the “Penguin Guide to Punctuation” says it is. I read on, hoping someone would publish a manifesto in defense of the poor abused mark, but couldn’t find anything. So that someone turned out to be me.
What I love about ! is precisely the unabashed emotion that makes sober style guides uncomfortable. The exclamation point encodes feelings — and it doesn’t apologize for doing so. In fact, since its first known appearance, in the 1340s, ! has been praised for capturing the emotion of the author and encouraging emotions in the reader.
The ! was a bit of a late bloomer — sprouting up from the period, which along with the comma, colon and question mark had been around for hundreds of years. The Italian scholar Alpoleio da Urbisaglia, however, noticed with dismay that people would read what he called “admirative sentences” as statements or questions, which undermined both the meaning and the effect. In his Latin treatise “The Art of Punctuating,” Alpoleio suggested a new mark, one that would signal “admiration and wonder” through a period at the bottom of the line and an apostrophe dangling from the top of the line. ! was born, addressing an express need for emotion in text.
Renaissance writers put a premium on persuasion, gladly using any means at their disposal to make their readers feel, so the exclamation point quickly spread across Europe from manuscript to manuscript and enlarged its sphere of influence to indicate not only admiration and wonder but any strong emotion.
! was happily coasting along in the service of effective rhetoric until a shift occurred at the end of the 19th century. Its repercussions still determine our current critical attitudes: We started to become suspicious of emotion in any form in public or private life, preferring the clean straight lines of a Bauhaus building to the mischievous curlicues of a Renaissance palace. During the Victorian age, language was forced into a straitjacket of right or wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the zeitgeist of quantification, linguistics invented itself as an exact science that left little space for ambiguity, experimentation, excess and the conscious deviations that are the hallmark of a language that’s alive and breathing.
Influential household writing guides like “The King’s English” (1906) by the Fowler brothers, sternly admonishing that too many !!! “betray the uneducated,” contributed to banishing exclamation points into two realms where convincing through emotion was of the utmost importance: wartime propaganda and advertising. Private exclaiming was discouraged; there wasn’t even a dedicated ! key on the typewriter until the 1980s — before that, you had to return to the exclamation point’s olden days, performing a complicated period-backspace-apostrophe dance. Only those truly committed to shouting would go to such lengths.
But ! was merely in hiding, planning its comeback. And come back it did … with a vengeance: Smartphone technology enables us to simply leave our thumbbbbbbb on any of the hundreds of available keys and produce rows of characters with no added effort. Social media’s declared goal is informal, near-instant human communication. Put differently, it’s all about emotion.
It seems almost obvious now that the exclamation point would rise again when smartphones and the web emerged and pooled forces. But there’s more to our increased !!!!!!!! than just that: The internet is a supremely disembodied space. All writing is disembodied, but with the rise of digital communication, we don’t have reminders of the writer’s actual presence anymore; we don’t have paper to feel, folds and crumples to see, or individual letter forms to scrutinize, underlinings, scratchings-out, a stamp that’s been licked. Both writer and reader are reduced to electronic impulses, as if they never existed as flesh and blood. Precisely because the exclamation point is so EMOTIONAL, it’s able to bridge that gap of presence. On the web, people using ! seem friendlier than people who don’t.
In their 2007 book “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,” David Shipley (now the editorial page editor at The Washington Post) and Will Schwalbe suggest that exclamation points can give welcome texture to the otherwise flat tone of emails, recuperating them from the bottom of the punctuation pecking order. Why not spice up your emailing game with a few strategically placed exclamation points here and there? And don’t forget to include at least one in the first message to the person you swiped on: Your chances of getting a date could increase by 10 percent, according to one study!
The exclamation point did go through a rough patch before and during the Trump presidency: In 12 years on the little-blue-bird platform, Donald Trump reportedly produced 56,000 tweets, containing 33,000 !s. That’s a lot of exclaiming. It added to the screechy tone and political division perceived in the United States and abroad during those years. While the association with the ex-president remains strong, users have attempted to reclaim ! as a sign of spontaneous enthusiasm and authenticity.
But another threat is lurking around the corner: emoji. The little pictures have been hijacking some of the !’s traditional territory, appending expressions of feeling in text messages. In recent years, the number of emoji has exploded, growing every year. As texters, we need to scroll through long lists of similar-looking pictures to find the exact one that suits our need. Then as readers, we have to spend time and attention on recognizing which emoji we are facing and interpreting what it means in relation to the words surrounding it. The exclamation point, in contrast, is much more economical and effective, well suited to the swift back and forth of texting. Its shape is unmistakable, its message clear: Here are feelings! Pay attention!
Emoji may naturally disappear in a few years, replaced by new technologies, but the 700-year-old exclamation point isn’t going anywhere. And thank goodness! We need to keep using it — and should be free to do so, to point out wonder, express admiration. And joy! But beware: Boomers are allergic to exclamation points. So, if you want to keep the peace at the next family gathering with your parents-in-law, better go for the boring period!
Florence Hazrat is the author of “An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!” She is a writer and researcher from Berlin who loves all things punctuation and Shakespeare.
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