Just now, I sent an email to my sister with approximately seven exclamation points at the end. She just got a new job in New York City, and I wanted to show my ecstatic support!!
My writing friends would be horrified. In the writing world, the exclamation point is like creme brulee, to be eaten on occasion and only in small doses. To throw it out in the middle of a regular old email is a sign of literary gluttony.
But I must confess. When I am not under the all-seeing eye of the writing world, I gorge on the exclamation point. I am also guilty of bingeing on sideways smiley faces, capital letters and hyperbole.
Why can’t I seem to get control of my disorder?
Chances are, if you’re texting, Instagramming or commenting online, you’re right there with me, throwing in all sorts of extras to spice up your writing.
Language is a delicate, nuanced instrument for communication. As we’ve morphed from the handwritten letter to the email to the text or comment, we’ve had to navigate how to convey our emotions in shorter bursts of thought. We no longer pen epistles, where we’re given pages and pages of paper to explain our meaning. Without nuance, the written word often falls flat.
Consider the following statements:
I can’t believe you did that.
Without inflection, these phrases sound angry or, at the least, bored. It’s called cold communication for a reason. We could spend hours deciphering the intent behind the word “whatever.” Even the phrase “That’s so funny” doesn’t seem believable until you do this:
That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, LOL. :)
That’s SOOOOO funny!!!!!!!!!!
I can’t believe you did that. :( :( :(
Only when we lace our texts, comments, emails and status updates with emoticons, capital letters and half a dozen exclamation points do we feel that we can properly convey our feelings in 140 characters or less.
But even true meaning is being overshadowed by the ubiquitous nature of our comments. Along with doctoring our sentences, these days, we are prone to write with unrestrained exaggeration. Almost daily, we throw out phrases like: “I’ve never been so mad in my entire life!!!!”; “That is seriously the cutest picture I’ve ever seen.”; or “Dying laughing.”
Language has always been a fussy thing. There are those who believe verbage and writing should remain static. The purists were up in arms about the liberties Shakespeare took with language. These same elites have been bemoaning the decline of language and grammar for 500 years.
The exclamation point didn’t even get put on the keyboard until the 1970s, but long before that, the highly literate were complaining.
"Cut out all those exclamation marks,” the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once lamented. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”
We can only wonder what he would think of today’s communication. I'm certain he wouldn't be laughing out loud.
And yet, we seem to be getting along just fine. What is the big fuss? Certainly there are bigger issues to tackle. Is the exclamation point just another First World Problem?
Maybe not. Here’s where I believe the purists get it right: Our short, flippant statements are creating a culture where words lose their meaning, where we filter out the lovely description or the pithy turn of phrase for blanket, over-exaggerated statements.
Take, for instance, the word “awesome.” Its dictionary meaning is “showing or characterized by reverence, admiration or fear; exhibiting or marked by awe.” Awesome is an enormous word with lungs, heart and sky. However, long ago the word “awesome” found its way into the surfer-dude lexicon. Today, everything is awesome.
Likewise, when we rely on emoticons to convey our feelings, we miss out on the opportunity to practice written expression. Writing has always been a way for humans to process their feelings. It is an act of discovery.
When with the click of a button we can instead insert a salsa dancer and a hundred tiny pink hearts, we eliminate that journey. An exclamation point is but another crutch for poor writing. And in a world where more and more of our communication happens in written form, the need for strong, nuanced writing has never been more important. Effective written communication will be one of our greatest tools going forward.
That said, I think it’s OK to recognize the evolution of language with a few well-placed additions. The famously verbose writer Victor Hugo recognized this. It is reported that after the publication of “Les Miserables,” with a whopping 1,488 pages, he wanted to find out if the book was well received. He sent a telegram to his publisher with one piece of punctuation: “?”
The answer came back: “!”
No need for more than that.