Home   About   Links   Archives   Tech   
 · You Got Style ·
   You Got Style
· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

« Michel Serres Aces the Final | Main | A Saving Imagination: The MLA's "Necessary Angel" »

· Mark, Mark, that Exclamation ·

Mark indeed! My, my, how could I forget? Of course!

I hope that since I posted last you haven't forgotten me! All this writing is tricky, especially during finals, and as I've had to lie low here after drafting a crafty holiday letter, I thought today to relieve myself of some unused energy! As you can see, I am trying!

And what should come to my aid but an old email from my sister! Yes — and here's how the lovely Stylesweet starts!

 · Mark's Point  · Hi, Styles, I've been corresponding with this very erudite young college student named Mark. He doesn't know if we are related or not or where he got my address. But he wrote such a scholarly piece the first time that I thought you had crafted it. Anyway, I wrote back for his identity and told him about you, and in the course of our correspondence the subject of exclamation points came up.

This was his reply. (I think he expresses my feelings about them very well. He attends the University of Georgia — a senior. He teaches piano but majors in English lit.) Maybe you would like to get into a conversation with him. We are enjoying ours, even though I could be his grandmother!

Well, I was intrigued and found myself taken, indeed, by Mark's style.

Perhaps Styles [he says] is more of a structuralist than I. Whereas he probably looks for consistency, structure, and some "truthful" correctness to the style of writing, I don't mind subverting these standards. Do you ever watch the Sienfeld show? They did a skit concerning one of the character's proclivity towards exclamation points within her writing, with the suggestion that such marks are incorrect! The sad exclamation point does tend to dramatize and romanticize things, and it does impart an informal flavor. However it serves a very specific purpose, especially in a hypertextual society where words provide only a portion of essential communication. Furthermore, it's purpose (exclamation) is especially useful in a particularly fluid, conversational medium such as Electronic Mail! Quite often, I find myself using two of them!! Maybe the exclamation point is overbearing, but it seems more clearly to illustrate the emotions and the message of the author, albeit informally. But we're not submitting any formal dissertations any time soon!

So what did I say? Only this:

After clearing my throat twice (piano the first time and forte the second) I can safely respond here to Mark's delightful note. I can tell that he, too, has read the usual post-structuralists, Derrida, Barthes, et al., whose playful, witty-wise proclivity for orthographical expression I have also read with pleasure. Mark's wrong to think I'm a "structuralist," though, since in spite of my phonocentric metaphor "expression," I'm only "methodical" — although I do believe I am thus politically, religiously, and academically non-sectarian. So I must still cite John Trimble's apt ripost: "Avoid exclamation points, which have been cheapened by comic-strip cartoonists (who haven't yet discovered the period) and by advertising copywriters. . . . " Though Mark may find Trimble too elliptical, don't you think Trimble at least direct? I know I do. Do perhaps find his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Who knows, Mark may someday have taught (just like Trimble and me) America's ever-expressive freshmen for over three decades.


Trimble has helpfully refined his take on exclamation points over the decades, particularly so in his twelfth chapter on "Punctuation" (2nd ed., 132):

Exclamation points — "screamers" in newspaper parlance — are generally ill-advised, for four reasons:

  • Since they're cheapened by writers given to cuteness, exaggeration, and melodramatic effects, they have a bad odor among serious readers.
  • Many people prefer understated humor to the trumpeted, self-approving variety.
  • If the witticism is genuinely funny, it won't need an "Applause" sign. And if it's unfunny, what reader won't resent being coerced to applaud it?
  • Sophisticated writers know that omitting the exclamation point is a form of self-protection. If the witticism is deft, they'll be admired for the dryness of their wit. But if the witticism misfires, there's no proof of their having intended a joke.

The exclamation point must be used, however, after true exclamations or commands: "Whew!" "Go!" "How lovely!"

Posted by
Styles on December 19, 2003 11:25 AM

Cool! Wow!! Bravissimo!!!

While I, too, am an admirer of Trimble — used his book for many years — I like Mark's spunk. His argument for more flexibility in exclamation use in e-mails and instant messages makes some sense, just as those forms often rely on the newer emoticons.

But I agree with Styles and Trimble that in carefully edited writing intended for broad circulation, less is more in the exclamation point department.

Posted by John on December 21, 2003 12:16 AM

In Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word Watcher, Lewis Thomas prescribes what seems (pp. 140-41) a sensible regimen of restraint:

Any writer of prose should be compelled, by law if necessary, to submit professional credentials and undergo a waiting period of seven days before placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Writers of poetry are automatically excluded from such use, almost by definition. There may be occasions when an exclamation point is excusable, perhaps even justified, in certain kinds of writing — public street signs, for example, like STOP!, DANGER!, TERRIBLE DOG!, but not among the sentences of any ordinary paragraph.

The problem is that once you allow one or two in, they tend to multiply, scattering themselves everywhere, expostulating, sounding off, making believe that phrases have a significance beyond what the words themselves are struggling to say. They irritate the eyes. They are, as well, pretentious, self-indulgent and in the end almost always pointless. If a string of words is designed to be an astonishment, a veritable terror of a string, the words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point at the end like a Toyota salesman on TV.

Does that mean, perhaps, "Buy American!"?

Posted by Styles on April 27, 2004 09:53 PM

 · XML RSS · Copyright © 2007  YouGotStyle.org
 · MT- Powered ·     

Unless otherwise stated, all original materials of whatever kind included in these pages, including weblog archives, are licensed under a Creative Commons License.
April 2013
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30        
  Last Posts
  Category Archives
  Monthly Archives