Get to the Exclamation Point Online

Angie King

The exclamation point.

Let’s try that again.

The exclamation point!

Much better. Feel the excitement. The exclamation point changes the tone. Just like that! Why, then, are we encouraged to steer clear of this titillating punctuation mark? The exclamation point—known on the street as the screamer and the bang—has a bad rap. In school and at my first corporate communications job, I was warned to never, ever use the bang. It was the four-letter-word of punctuation. Grammar books and professional writerly folk get all prickly at the use of exclamation marks. But why? And does this hold true for web writing, or is this an outdated, print-only restraint?

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Consulting the experts

According to Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” we should “not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.” (Subtext: writers who use screamers are trying in vain to make boring stuff sound exciting.)

In “The Gregg Reference Manual,” exclamation points are associated with the smarmiest of writing—sales and advertising copy. (Subtext: the bang is a false charmer that wants to sell us junk.)

The “Harbrace College Handbook” and the “AP Stylebook” at least allow for exclamation marks. They just warn against overuse, which makes sense. Excessive screamers come off like ALL CAPS—too aggressive. Or, as Dan Hersam puts it: “Another appropriate analogy would be the boy who cried exclamation mark. If you use it all the time then people will begin to realize that you really don't have anything to exclaim.”

But you can also be too conservative with exclamation marks. Author Elmore Leonard advises: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." That probably works for novelists looking to create gritty realism, but web writing can afford to be a little more exciting. Can’t it?

Bangs on the web

Unfortunately, there isn’t much dialogue out there about online screamers. The only article I found was in a Slate.com review of the book “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.” Slate’s Jacob Rubin reminds us: “One ought to show emphasis, the argument goes, through subtlety of style and construction, rather than indicate it with a tail of exclamation points.”

Yes, that’s what I was taught in school. And I agree with the premise of this argument. It ranks right up there with my all-time pet-peeve phrase found in office newsletters everywhere: “A good time was had by all!” Those seven words tell me nothing. Describe the “good time.” Define “all.” Make me feel like I was there.

It’s difficult to do that in an e-mail, a tool meant to deliver quick and efficient messages. If you want to convey mood or express emotion, you simply don’t have the time to write—and your recipient doesn’t have the time to read—a detailed description. In addition, Rubin points out: “Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be."

So, we end simple statements with a bang in our e-mail. It’s easy! Just look at that.

I exclaim

Like e-mail, web writing doesn’t have time to set the stage and describe the atmosphere to readers. They want information. Now! I say we bring screamers back. Bangs belong on the net. Not often, but here and there, where you need a little emotion. Give the information superhighway some personality. Embrace the exclamation point. Go for it!