I am on a mission to limit my use of the exclamation point in my writing. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and I imagine I am not alone. It seems that every statement, announcement, social media post, program or book title includes one. It’s exhausting to not only read it all the time, but write it all the time.
I think the problem is that writing is a somewhat constrained form of communication, limited to words with occasional graphic emphasis such as bolding or italics. We have been so utterly relegated to using the written word to communicate for so long, we’ve boxed ourselves in. In fighting to regain or retain some of our humanity and free our human voice, we’ve gone a little overboard. We’re literally “screaming” to break out by using words and punctuation that substitute for actual screaming.
The exclamation point usually follows or is used in tandem with superlatives (excited, happy, thrilled, proud, fantastic, fabulous, wonderful, etc.). It is also used to express a strong emotion, to exclaim.
But with its overuse, it’s lost a good deal of its meaning. If everything is superlative, nothing is. If every emotion is strong or every statement exclaimed, then how do we differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t, what truly merits notice and what truly doesn’t?
I don’t have the answer, but I do know language usage changes over time. One of my graduate school professors characterized dictionaries not as books of definitions, but as historical documents. When we look at old dictionaries, we see some definitions that bear little relation to what the words mean today. And I think this is one of the things we’re seeing now with the exclamation point. Its use has evolved and its meaning changed. In fact, writing certain things without using them looks dry and feels like a bit of a downer.
Still, I’m going to continue with my experiment. I won’t eliminate exclamation points entirely. But I will try to deploy them more thoughtfully.
Wish me luck.
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[Image: Flickr user Geoff]