OK! Let’s celebrate one of the true marvels of modern punctuation!
The need to exclaim has been with us since time immemorial. We have always exclaimed. It’s possible the first word ever articulated in any language was an exclamation. It’s intrinsic to our spoken culture. And if we’re giving it a touch of the verbals we may well need to put it in writing…
In glimmering light: an unknown scribe dips a newly sharpened quill into a stained pot of ink. An inconstant candle flame flickers as angry breath flays the air. The writer’s rage is apparent in each scratch and stroke of every word that he commits to the page yet, seemingly, this is not enough to assuage his passion. In our historical reconstruction the writer attacks the page. Is there no ready punctuation that might add force to his exclamation? The quill is his weapon of choice. He attacks. First a downward slash! and then a vicious stab! He has expressed himself. He is finished.The exclamation mark is born…
Well, it’s as likely an explanation as any other.
Shakespeare, as far as is known, didn’t use exclamation marks. There are none in the first folio of 1623 (seven years after he shuffled off his mortal coil!); later editors ‘corrected’ that obvious omission.
My anxious words exclaimed and spat – yet, hark/ Is that a missing punctuation mark? “Out, damn’d spot!” The trouble is that no one really knows: the history of ! is, at best, uncertain. So, here, rather than get mired in a bloggy swamp of actual etymology, I thought I might briefly wonder who and what the exclamation mark is really for.
The slash and the stab! In its essence we can see the physical nature of strongly asserted expression. It takes any writer extra effort to apply an exclamation mark. Once upon a time, in the dark days of the last century when exclamation marks were rationed, typists had to type a full stop then back up to top it off with an apostrophe. Can you believe it? Now, of course, with the advances of technology we are rich with the possibilities of punctuational profligacy. Hard to imagine how people actually lived in the twentieth century!!! But still I have to hit the shift key first. See: !
In its broadest conventional sense ! can express anger, excitement and similarly heightened or aggravated emotions; emphasise the punchline to a joke; and suggest a rise in volume from spoken to shouted.
In its most punctilious, conventional usage ! is restricted to speech – to convey the nature of meaning within quotation marks, or to be spoken after the colon in a playtext.
“However,” says an exemplary grammarian supremacist, “if you really have to use an exclamation mark to add stress then you should never use more than one.” The conventionally-minded prefer italics, of course. “Always remember that an exclamation mark is the absolute equivalent of a full stop at the end of a sentence. One is sufficient.”
Good point. Except that it’s not…
Three full stops morph into leader dots … with a world of fresh possibilities. So, if triplication is good enough for full stops, why not enjoy multiple exclamation marks? In our less than conventional text lives you really have to wonder how many screamers is enough.
The history of the exclamatory urge is littered with informal aliases for ! – a screamer is an exclamation mark is a … ball-bat, bang, boing, dembanger, dog’s cock, dog’s dick, eureka, exclamation point, exclaimer, gasper, pling, screech, shout pole, shriekmark, smash, slammer, soldier,spark-pot, startler, wham … is an exclamation mark!
Using an exclamation mark (or marks!!!) is nothing more than a way of drawing attention, with the purpose of stressing a particular set of words and marking them out as being extra-worthy of attention. It’s a stress mark! Simple as. Yet, standing alone, ! still doesn’t necessarily make the sense of a sentence clear. Which is the shortcoming in modern grammar that manifold gaspers attempt to address.
So, how many eurekas do you need to register your meaning?
Excitement – I’ve got stress marks!!!!!
Despair – OMG! I’ve got stress marks!!
Sarcasm – Nice use of stress marks!!! Not!
Alarm – Stress marks!!
Shouting – I said STRESS MARKS!
Animal noises – Woof!
Surprise – A grammar pedant who praises the use of stress marks(!)
Humour – I’ve got stress marks on my stress marks!!!!!!!!
Anger – STRESS MARKS! !! !!!!!!!
Danger – !
Good Idea –
Cartoon Voice –
Place Name –
Westward Ho!, a village in Devon, is named after an 1855 bestselling novel by Charles Kingsley. It is the only place in Britain that has an exclamation mark as part of its name.
Corporate Identity –
Google used to have an exclamation point too.
Personal styling –
P!nk’s her showbiz name and that’s how the world knows her.
Your private parts –
Politics – We have the best stress marks! – Soldiers Unite! Slammers stand against any new stress mark policy!!!
Mischief – Now! That’s What I Call Stress Marks!
…and so on.
…and so on.
…and so on.
See!! There is no right way, is there? It’s whatever feels right.
In 2010 the hard-boiled American crime writer Elmore Leonard(!) published his 10 Rules of Writing. One of those rules is often selectively quoted by the anti-! lobby:
“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
Yep! That much advice is perfect for writing Elmore Leonard novels. No question.
However, his quote inconveniently continues, “If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”
Take Elmore Leonard’s advice. Be like Tom Wolfe – express yourself!
Why not combine ! with a question mark?
! + ? = interrobang. Good, huh?! But sometimes even all of that and more is still not enough…
We’ve all been there. It’s not until we arrive at the end of a longish sentence that we can see if an exclamation mark is in play, and it is only at that point, when we see one lurking there after putting in all that reading and understanding, that we can properly start interpreting the meaning of the words before us! One solution is to use the inverted exclamation mark. The Spanish have been starting their exclamations with ¡ for years. The sentence that you are about to read is stressed with an exclamation mark. ¡It’s brilliant!!! Why not hijack it? ¡¡¡¡ Get a bit creative with it!!!!! ¡Why not!? ¿¡Why ever not!?!?
My fully serious point here is that punctuation should be there to serve our nuanced communication needs, and not the other way about. The ! is simply a small constituent in the workings of our language. The way these things progress(!), grammarian supremacists of a hundred years hence will likely have codified and ‘corrected’ what is now just experimental evolution, and corralled our errant exclamations into a grammar book of rules.
That’s when the sticklers will suck the life out of the dog’s cock if they can. So we may as well enjoy all that our startlers and exclaimers have to offer now before they become part of a conventional establishment.