Ah, the exclamation point, or exclamation mark as some call it… I believe it is seriously overused, and I like to think that most editors would agree with me. Don’t you hate reading a book where every piece of dialog ends in one? Commonly it us used to indicate a raised voice, shouting, surprise, alarm, etc. Lazy! (See what I did there?) As a writer, if you cannot show the reader a character’s emotions or tone of voice in any other way, then you aren’t being creative. Context should indicate whether they are whispering or shouting.
Am I being unfair? As a reader, do you believe that is exactly what the exclamation point is for – to indicate an exclamation? The dictionary would support this claim:
1. the sign (!) used in writing after an exclamation.
2. this mark sometimes used in writing two or more times in succession to indicate intensity of emotion, loudness, etc.: Long live the Queen!!
3. this mark sometimes used without accompanying words in writing direct discourse to indicate a speaker’s dumbfounded astonishment: “His wife just gave birth to quintuplets.” ( ! )
All right, but where does it stop? Often I see double marks, e.g. “Stop it!!” So how do we interpret this? If one mark is shouting, what does two mean? Believe it or not I have read a published book (whose author shall remain nameless) who frequently used up to 5 (yes five!!!!!) exclamation points. Now we’re just getting silly. Some authors fall into grammar traps too, such as “What the hell are you doing here?!” I do believe those two punctuation marks should never appear together.
There is even a term for the overuse of the exclamation point: Bangorrhea:
1. Overusing exclamation points in a vain and failing attempt to make your writing sound more exciting. Trying to put more “bang” in your prose, but looking instead like you have exclamation point diarrhea.
My goal is to limit myself to one a page, and then only during intense dialog. I can happily go chapters at a time without using one. In the editing stage I search for them and play a game of seeing how many I can remove and still get the meaning across. Does this mean the reader has to work harder at understanding? Yes, but I don’t regard that as a bad thing, since your writing can be more nuanced without resorting to the loud “bang”. Avoid using them frequently, or they diminish in effect. Ask yourself whether the sentence is a true exclamation or is just a statement. In doubt err on the side of the period.
The simple truth is:
If everything is emphasized, nothing is.
Let’s end on a quote from an author who knows a thing or two:
“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald —
What do you think? Am I being unfair to a perfectly acceptable element of punctuation. Please share your comments below.