May 9, 2018
Have exclamation points reached saturation point?!?!
by Tom Clayton
If, upon reading that headline, you developed a sudden and localised nervous tic above one or both eyes, then you might be among the growing number of people who, according to Anna Orso’s recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, have had enough of excessive punctuation. Why??, You might well ask!! Well!! It seems that not everyone likes to receive emails! Or read tweets! Written in that perky! And slightly forced?! Style that overusing exclamation points! Can often! Engender! (OK wow, I’ve really had enough of that already.)
Orso’s article is fascinating, especially the section where Judith Kallos, an online etiquette expert also known as “Miss [email protected],” suggests that “there is no place for emoticons, emojis, or oddly placed punctuation in business communications.” Well, tell that to Donald J. Trump, Judith. According to Craig Brown in the Daily Mail, Trump has used 9,261 exclamation points in his 37,500-ish tweets thus far. That works out at around one exclamation point in every four tweets (a figure that actually seems… quite low?). DJT’s near-constant exclaiming is an extreme example of overuse reducing the effect of punctuation. Indeed, it could be argued we’ve become accustomed to exclamation points (and by extension, the nacreous and bloated carnival of idiocy that is Trump’s Twitter feed) to the point where they’re virtually unnoticeable. Nate Silver has even suggested a halfway-house semi-exclamation point to temper the near-constant state of hysteria we seem to be operating at now. Capital letters, doubled-up punctuation, unnecessary ellipses… everywhere; these are all markers of a populace desperate to shout the loudest, to express themselves in the most flamboyant way possible, and so ultimately to cut through the tidal wave of information permanently breaking on our heads. There doesn’t seem to be much room for quiet writing in mainstream media these days, which is an upsetting and potentially dangerous development mirrored by the rise of increasingly extremist politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
But let’s return to the workplace for a second. While it’s certainly true that overused or strangely placed punctuation can be grating (it can even just be plain odd, depending on the IRL relationship between punctuator and punctuatee; we all know that person who writes!!! like!!! this!!!!!!!!, but then speaks as if they haven’t been possessed by the spirit of a Labrador puppy, right?), it’s also—and, folks, if you’ve come here to see me laying into over-punctuators, it might be wise to look away now—not the worst thing happening in the world right now. If language is widely acknowledged as a constantly changing and evolving entity, then why shouldn‘t punctuation be, too? Everyone remembers getting a chatty email over a dull one (even if those memories are tinged with nausea), so where’s the harm? In fact, it might even present over-enthusers with an advantage in the long run. In the time it’s taken a grammar-patroller to count up the number of exclamation points and write a pithy tweet about it, they could have been doing literally anything else. All I’m saying is, there’s A Lot Of Other Stuff going down that’s worth getting worked up over; and if someone tries to brighten their day and yours with some friendliness (regardless of how forced it might be)… allow it, and be nice back. If kindness is ultimately how we’re going to make a better society, then why not start by responding to Gemma From Accounts with more than the email equivalent of a shrug? Maybe a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ instead…?!
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.