I came up as a writer in the days when the exclamation point was a judiciously, seldom-used punctuation mark. It was to be placed at the end of a sentence in only extreme cases, as a shout of intensity or alarm when words alone cannot convey such powerful feelings.
Writers who overused the exclamation point were often derided. It was a lazy way to show emotion.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
In the famed crime writer Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing, this is rule number 5:
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.Elmore Leonard
Leonard didn’t always follow this rule in his own novels.
I went back to my most recent novel, THIS GAME WE PLAY, to see how many exclamation points I used. The novel has 95,025 words, 8,477 sentences, and 55 exclamation points, for a rate of .006 exclamation points per sentence. That’s not many. And I honestly thought hard about each one I placed, so ingrained in me is the peril of this punctuation.
But I’m behind the times. The exclamation point has become almost as ubiquitous as the period, thanks to digital communications. And it’s not just a casual throwaway found on social media–even business communications are rife with this hearty mark.
The other day, I received this reply to an email I wrote to confirm a scheduled conference call:
Confirming a meeting got me THREE exclamation points in response. That’s impressive. I hadn’t used any in my email.
The linguist Gretchen McCullough recently conducted a poll that asked how many exclamation points were needed to show enthusiasm. The most popular response: three exclamation points.
That’s because one exclamation point can no longer carry the weight of its role. This previously maligned punctuation mark has transformed from a shout of intensity or alarm to a gesture of friendliness or sincerity. We’re going to meet at 3 pm? Oh, that sounds good!!!
Still, I struggle. When I consider using an exclamation point at the end of a sentence or a text, I get a little queasy. I feel the sweat beading on my brow. I’ve always been a period guy, or even no punctuation sometimes if I’m writing a text.
This simple exchange tells all, when I got a text from someone I love very much saying she was COVID-19 negative.
I’m afraid my lack of exclamatory signalling through the exclamation point may be creating the wrong impression–that I’m not an enthusiastic person, or that I’m not sincere, not friendly.
Please! Say it isn’t so! I will try harder!! I will use the exclamation point anywhere!!! I will use it everywhere!!!!
Or maybe not.