In an essay published in 1895 called “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain chastised writers who use “whooping exclamation-points” that reveal them laughing at their own humor, “all of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.” Exclamation points are used to show elements of surprise or emphasis. In the newspaper world, an exclamation mark is “a screamer, a gasper, [or] a startler.” Classic style manuals generally decree that the exclamation point should be used sparingly.
F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.”
Zinsser claims that readers are annoyed by our reminder that this was a comical, surprising, or important moment. He feels that the reader is robbed of the pleasure of finding it surprising or funny on their own. “I have long tried to swear off them,” said Peter Godwin, whose book “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa” detailed life in his native Zimbabwe. “I think they are the literary equivalent of canned applause. I hate the way they jostle you, and the way they prescribe, ‘Dear reader, be amazed!’ And while we’re on the subject, there’s the ‘?!’ one-two combo. I suppose it is trying to say, ‘My question is jokey,’ or ‘I’m embarrassed to ask it in the first place.’ ”
Some authors, however, most notably Tom Wolfe, are known for the unashamedly liberal use of the exclamation mark. In their book “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,” David Shipley and Will Schwalbe say that the exclamation point was originally reserved for an actual exclamation (“My goodness!” or “Good grief!”) but that they have become unexpected champions of this maligned punctuation. “We call it the ur emoticon,” Mr. Schwalbe said in a phone conversation with Aimee Lee Ball from the New York Times. “In an idealized world, we would all be able to do what our English teachers told us to do, which is to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar. The exclamation point is the quickest and easiest way to kick things up a notch, but not if you’re angry. Only happy exclamation points.”
Given Shipley and Schwalbe’s evenhandedness, their merry endorsement of exclamation marks comes as a surprise. ” ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they write. ” ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.” To appreciate the unorthodoxy of such counsel one need only have attended a middle-school writing class, where teachers have long forbidden overindulgence in the exclamation point as a kind of literary self-abuse. One ought to show emphasis, the argument goes, through the subtlety of style and construction, rather than indicate it with a tail of exclamation points. Elmore Leonard advises, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Declaim the original Strunk and White, in their legendary sotto voce: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.” Their example? ” ‘It was a wonderful show!’ should be, ‘It was a wonderful show.’ ” (Forget the show—how ’bout that conference!)
Indeed the “wonderful” is what the exclamation point was originally devised to connote. A relatively recent addition to the punctuation clan, it first appeared in print around 1400 and was known until 1700 as a “note of admiration,” though admiration, in this case, meant something like “wonderment” (of a religious variety). Some scholars believe it derives from the Latin Io (meaning joy). Io, the theory goes, might have been rendered with its second letter under the first, thus producing an exclamation mark.
The ! mark was not featured on standard manual typewriters before the 1970s. Instead, one typed a period, backspaced, and typed an apostrophe. In the 1950s, secretarial dictation and typesetting manuals referred to the mark as “bang,” adapted from comic books where the ! appeared in dialogue balloons to represent a gun being fired.
To risk sounding like an old schoolmarm: If everything is emphasized, nothing is. Writing “kicked up a notch” or juiced up on bangers simply contribute to the noise. But that doesn’t mean that the exclamation point should be kicked to the curb.
In fact, a group of contemporary writers is waging an ingenious campaign to redeem the devalued exclamation point. I’m thinking of people like Rebecca Curtis, Sam Lipsyte, and Arthur Bradford, who have all been influenced by Denis Johnson, a modern master of Io. No curmudgeon, Johnson sprinkles exclamation points at a rate that would dizzy Elmore Leonard and with such ingenuity that they do capture a true, and nearly religious, “wonder.” Most critically, they attend moments of fragile feeling rather than, say, wild interconnectedness. Moments that might easily escape notice (especially if you have your nose in a phone), and moments of quiet, too. Take Johnson on a woman’s scream after receiving news of her husband’s death: “What a pair of lungs!” Or Johnson on an MS patient in a hospital: “No more pretending for him!” Or Johnson on pink baby rabbits: “Little feet! Eyelids! Even whiskers!”
I think I’ll unabashedly continue my delight in shouting from the rooftops!