America Has a Love Affair With Exclamation Points
Crazy! Lol!! Super!!! In a nation of ecstasists that uses expressions like great to describe everything from a cup of coffee to a night’s sleep, it isn’t surprising that these cute punctuation marks—called “bang,” “wonderer,” and “screamer”—pop up just about everywhere to denote an unrestrained enthusiasm, though some see them as gendered expressions of emotion and others, mostly Gen Z, as passé.
It wasn’t always this way.
We got the exclamation point from the British, along with all things verbal. Yet the British are at a loss as to how it entered their parlance in the first place. Some argue, inconclusively, that the exclamation point dates back to the 18th century, derived from the Latin interjection Iō! (“hey!”),” which medieval monks, through a process of decantation, redesigned by placing the “o” below the “l,” then shrinking it until it was just a dot.
The Hebrew Bible doesn’t use punctuation, so none are there. English-language translators, though, in their savvy creativity, have reversed the absence: the Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition) of the Old Testament has 1,087, and the New, 395.
“Alas! what harm doth appearance / When it is false in existence!,” Geoffrey Chaucer utters in The Canterbury Tales, in order to display candor. And the exclamation point makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s First Folio, although sparingly.
In the U.S., there are none in Francis Bellamy’s “Pledge of Alliance,” or in our sacred text, the Constitution. In 1828, Noah Webster, our unacknowledged Founding Father, who dreamed of American English as a language to homogenize the country through his groundbreaking An American Dictionary of the English Language, specifically defines exclamation as “outcry; noisy talk; clamor; as exclamations against abuses in government.” He calls attention to the “emphatical utterance or outcry” that requires the mark, as in “thus!,” yet avoids it at all cost.
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In contrast, Emily Dickinson used around 384 of them in her collected work, often to refer to “death-conscious” experiences. In fact, possibly the very last poem, F338A, she is likely to have written ends with—surprise!—an exclamation point: “Good-by to the life I used to live/ And the world I used to know/ And kiss the hills for me, just once/ Now I am ready to go!”
Mark Twain cautioned against their whooping perfidy in his 1895 essay “How To Tell A Story”, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said that using an exclamation mark is like “laughing at your own jokes.”
Willa Cather and William Faulkner didn’t shy away from incorporating them into a title (O Pioneers! and Absalom, Absalom!). Ernest Hemingway includes a total of one in The Old Man and the Sea, which seems abnormal by today’s standards. One example of its abundance in contemporary literature is Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which features 108.
It is a cliché, of course, to disdain the exclamation point, but, as you might guess by now, I rather like it. And given its plenteousness, I can’t be in the minority.
Still, William Strunk, in his classic The Elements of Style, states—stalely—that the mark is to be reserved solely “for after true exclamations and commands.” Elmore Leonard, instead, settled, rather punctiliously, on a numerical approach: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose,” he cautioned. Theodor Adorno portrayed it as “a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.”
Social media is the exclamation mark’s natural habitat. Actually, a failure to use it while texting might be considered proof of psychological delayism, the syndrome of irremediably having fallen behind the times. Writing, at the top of an email, “Hi!” instead of “Hi,” or, at the end of a message, “Thanks!” instead of “Thanks,” suggests a kind of boredom, as life itself was colorless.
It might also be coupled with the question mark, yet “!?” isn’t the same than a “?!”: The first denotes puzzlement, while the second incredulity. Or is it the other way around? This pair has now merged into what is known as the interrobang. There is a persistence in usage of the interrobang from the 1950s to the present, a crescendo that feels, at least to the older generation, overwhelming. Mac and Google have created the combined “‽,” which was created by advertising executive Martin K. Speckter.
And it likes to show up in groups. Whereas a period at the end of a sentence comes across as a demonstration of sarcasm, one lonely, unhinged exclamation point runs the risk of being interpreted as a manifestation of lukewarm affection. If it shows up in pairs, it is to indicate incredulity; three is proof of eagerness; four of fervor; five of out-of-control fondness; and more, stratospheric bewilderment.
Considering that the exclamation point is a relative newcomer to American English—it only got its own typewriter key in 1970—it is striking how much leeway it has made in our collective consciousness in such short span of time. Just look around (when you happened to be offline): It shows up in road signs to invoke caution; commercial brands like Yahoo! and Chips Ahoy! use it to add a twist to their products; and it is ubiquitous in music lyrics, starting with The Beatle’s “Help!” There is even a town in Ohio that changed its name to call attention to itself; it is now called, you guessed it, Hamilton!
It is also in countless children’s books, from William Steig’s Shrek! to Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! And it is the domain of that most American form of entertainment for young and old audiences: the comic strip. No superhero worthy of their profession—bang! kaboom! and zap!—would dare to avoid it. Asks Superman, whose duty is to fight for truth, justice, and the American way of life. As he likes to say, “you can’t throw morality in the garbage just because life’s tough!”
What, then, has driven America to become so overtly exclamatory? As a nation of immigrants in which everyone strives to leave a mark, it is fair to say that we have always been an animated people that looks with anticipation to a better tomorrow. Yet unlike previous centuries, we now have more ways to voice that excitement, which in turn makes us look for more artful forms of linguistic exultation.
The history of the exclamation mark in English proves that punctuation, though frequently seen as constricting, is defined by innovation. Consider how zoomers, people born between the mid-1990s and 2010, have embraced lowercase. Or the fact that the semicolon, judging from social media, is a dinosaur, representing nothing, as Kurt Vonnegut argued, except to “show you’ve been to college.” Punctuation is about how we perform before others; it isn’t always appropriate to have good manners.
As for the exclamation point, yeah!, it continues to be a symptom of our national eagerness. Things might be difficult at times, but, wow!!, we can, with a simple expression, make it awesome!!!
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