“!!!,” She Said

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Is there such a thing as too many exclamation points?

F. Scott Fitzgerald was no fan of exclamation points. Using them, he said, “is like laughing at your own joke.” Yet for all his snarky disdain, the things were all over his writing, like pollen on a windshield. We counted 125 in The Great Gatsby, 377 in This Side of Paradise. But Fitzgerald’s surrender to the lure of exclamation points is no reflection on his genius or his willpower. He simply couldn’t kick the habit. Neither can we!

If you’ve noticed yourself and pretty much everyone you know indulging in exclamation points with increasingly wanton abandon in texts, emails, kitchen-counter notes (“Hon—I’ll pick up the kibble & dry cleaning!!”) and online postings, you’re not imagining it. Nor does a single mark suffice. Conveying sufficient positivity and warmth requires a double serving at least—ideally sugared generously with emojis.

Of course, not everyone is sweet on exclamation points. “What’s worse than an exclamation point?,” asks David Kowal in the MetroWest Daily News. “A series of exclamation points, strung together, like a triplet or quadruplet of identical unwanted siblings; two is never enough.”

Indeed, there is even a name for exclamation excess—bangorrhea. It’s a portmanteau word combining “bang,” printerspeak for “exclamation point” and … well, you get the idea. The Urban Dictionary defines bangorrhea as “overusing exclamation points in a vain and failing attempt to make your writing sound more exciting.”

One may reasonably ask, “Why the fuss over a dinky little line with a dot beneath it? Who cares?” Clearly, a lot of people do. Over the years, the Punctuation Wars have been … well, punctuated by impassioned disputes over the comparative virtues of em dashes vs. colons and periods vs. semi-colons, not to mention, the endless food fights over the Oxford comma. But perhaps the ! is such a singular bone of contention because it’s the only mark that signifies emotion. Not just excitement and friendliness, but surprise, shock, fear, menace and disapproval. (If you’re writing in Spanish, you’ll need to bookend your exclamations, as in “¡Mi perro se comió mi tarea!” That gives readers a heads-up that an emotion-laden sentence lies ahead. They don’t need to wait till the end.)

Some organizations simply won’t hear of allowing exclamation points into their marketing content. Apple bans its distributors from cluttering ads with exclamation marks. The UK’s Department of Education requires grade-school teachers to discourage pupils from using exclamation points for sentences that don’t begin with “How” or “What.” Thus, “How dashing you look in that Corsican battle helmet!” is acceptable. “Watch out—python!” would be marked incorrect.

But not all punctuation pundits are so punitive. In their book, Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe argue that “exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth. … ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.” In a text or email, failure to exclaim can render a simple measure cold and distancing—“Thank you” vs. “Thank you!!”

There are even two towns on the world map whose name includes an exclamation point: Westward Ho!, a tiny UK coastal village near Devon, and Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!, an even tinier parish municipality in Quebec province. In the 1980s, the city of Hamilton, Ohio, one of the nation’s foremost manufacturers of coated paper, food mixes and safes, briefly tacked a ! on to its name to the amusement and derision of residents and journalists. The embellishment was removed a few years later, but in 2009, Hamilton won Gold in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Awards for best-tasting municipal water in the United States—surely worth a bit of decorative punctuation.

The U.S. Patent & Trade Office website lists scores of brands and companies with an exclamation point in their name. The best known, no doubt, are Yahoo! and Chips Ahoy!, which have deftly leveraged the mark to convey excitement and joy. Joop!, the German clothing and cosmetics firm, even went so far as to apply for trademark protection of the ! (The EU courts said, No!) For Yum!, the global fast food conglomerate, the ! is a matter of necessity. Unpunctuated, the name would just sit there in ironic detachment.

As for us at Carpenter Group, we haven’t made up our minds about exclamation points—whether to keep tapping them out by the dozen, or parceling them out with restraint. It’s all so confusing. It really is!!!