Perspective | Pity the exclamation point! It gets a bad rap but has a noble history.
For the past three years, I’ve been studying the history of the exclamation point – and in the course of my research (which began with a study of parentheses) I’ve repeatedly come across criticisms against it. !. I began to wonder if the exclamation point was really as “breathy, almost childish” as “The Penguin Guide to Punctuation“Says it is. I read, hoping someone would publish a manifesto in defense of the poor abused mark, but couldn’t find anything. So one turned out to be mine.
Which I love. ! There’s clearly an audacious spirit that makes sober style guides uncomfortable. The exclamation point encodes emotion — and it doesn’t apologize for doing so. Indeed, since its first known appearance, in the 1340s, ! Praised for capturing the emotions of the author and evoking emotion in the reader.
gave ! It was a bit of a late bloomer – growing out of the era, which had been around for hundreds of years with commas, colons and question marks. However, the Italian scholar Alpoleio da Urbisaglia observed with dismay that people read these as “paraphrased” statements or questions, which undermine both meaning and effect. In his Latin treatise “The Art of Punctuating“ Alpoleio suggested a new mark, which would indicate “luxury and wonder” by a break at the bottom of the line and an apostrophe hanging from the top of the line. ! The text was born out of addressing an obvious need for emotion.
Renaissance writers placed a premium on persuasion, using any means at their disposal to please their readers. feltSo the exclamation point quickly spread from manuscript to manuscript throughout Europe, expanding its scope to indicate not only admiration and surprise, but any strong emotion.
! It was happily coasting in the service of effective rhetoric until it changed in the late 19th century. Its effects still determine our current critical attitudes: we began to be suspicious of emotion in any form in public or private life, the clean straight lines of a Bauhaus building with the mischievousness of a Renaissance palace. Prefer style. During the Victorian era, language was forced into a straitjacket of right or wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the zeitgeist of quantification, linguistics reinvented itself as an exact science that left little room for the ambiguity, experimentation, excess and conscious deviation that are hallmarks of a living and breathing language.
Influential home writing guides such as “The King’s English” (1906) by the Fowler brothers strongly advise that many !!! “Deceiving the uneducated” contributed to the elimination of exclamation points in two spheres where persuasion through emotion was of utmost importance: wartime propaganda and advertising. Private shouting was discouraged. There was not even a dedication ! key on a typewriter until the 1980s – before that, you had to go back to the old days of the exclamation point performing a complicated period-backspace-apostrophe dance. Only those truly determined to scream will go to this extent.
But ! They were just hiding, planning a comeback. And come back … with a vengeance: smartphone technology enables us to drop our thumb BBBB on any of the hundreds of available keys and generate rows of letters without any extra effort. The declared goal of social media is informal, near-human communication. In other words, it’s all about emotion.
Now it seems almost certain that the exclamation point will rise again when smartphones and the web emerge and forces gather. But there is more to our growth. !!!!!!!! Except: the Internet is a very fragmented place. All writing is fragmented, but with the rise of digital communication, we no longer have reminders of the author’s true presence. We don’t have paper to feel, folds and crumples to see, or individual letterforms to investigate, an underlining, a scratching out, a stamp that has been licked. Both writer and reader are reduced to electric impulses, as if they never existed as flesh and blood. Especially because the exclamation point is so emotional, it’s able to fill that void of presence. On the web, people using ! seem friendlier than those who don’t.
In his 2007 bookSend: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It BetterDavid Shipley (now editorial page editor at The Washington Post) and Will Schwalby suggest that exclamation points can add welcome texture to the otherwise flat tone of emails, reclaiming them from the bottom line of punctuation. Why not up your emailing game with a few strategically placed exclamation points here and there? And don’t forget to include at least one in the first message to the person you swiped on: Your chances of getting a date can increase by 10 percent.according to a study!
The exclamation point went through a rough patch before and during Trump’s presidency: In 12 years on the Little Blue Bird platform, Donald Trump A total of 56,000 tweets were reportedly generated, including 33,000. !s. That’s a lot to shout about. It added to the increasingly bitter tone and political division perceived in the United States and abroad during these years. While the association with the former president remains strong, consumers have sought to reclaim it. ! As a symbol of spontaneous enthusiasm and authenticity.
But another threat lurks around the corner: emoji. Some of the smaller images have been hijacked. !The traditional area of , including the expression of feelings in text messages. In recent years, the number of emojis has exploded, growing every year. As texters, we need to scroll through long lists of similar-looking images to find the right image for our needs. Then as readers, we have to spend time and attention recognizing what emoji we’re encountering and what it means in relation to the words around it. In contrast, the exclamation point is much more economical and efficient, perfect for the fast back-and-forth of texting. Its form is unmistakable, its message is clear: Here are the feelings! pay attention!
Emoji may naturally disappear in a few years, replaced by newer technologies, but the 700-year-old exclamation point isn’t going anywhere. And thank God! We need to keep using it—and be free to do so, to express wonder, to express appreciation. And joy! But beware: Boomers are allergic to exclamation points. So, if you want to keep peace with your in-laws at the next family gathering, better go for the boring term!
Florence is the author of Hazrat. “An Appreciative Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!She is a Berlin-based writer and researcher who loves all things punctuation and Shakespeare.
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