Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Point of Exclamation by Ben Yagoda

Anybody who has ever logged on knows that online writing begets exclamation points. A lot of exclamation points! Mocking this punctuational predilection is easy and fun. An amusing blog called “Excessive Exclamation!!” features photos of, for example, a Carl’s Jr. printed receipt with the words “PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW WE DID!!!” Another naysayer is Steve Martin, who recently wryly Tweeted:
David Shipley, the executive editor of Bloomberg View and a former Op-Ed editor at this newspaper, and Will Schwalbe, authors of “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,” speculate that the trend stems in part from the nature of online media. “Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be,” they write. But what if a particular point needs to be stressed beyond where it would normally be? Well, you need to kick it up an additional notch, with another exclamation point, or three. The unsurprising result has been Weimar-level exclamation inflation, where (it sometimes seems) you have to raise your voice to a scream merely to be heard, and a sentence without blingy punctuation comes across like a whisper.
My 21-year-old daughter once criticized my habit of ending text-message sentences with a period. For a piece of information delivered without prejudice, she said, you don’t need any punctuation at the end (“Movie starts at 6”). An exclamation point is minimally acceptable enthusiasm (“See you there!”). But a period just comes off as sarcastic (“Good job on the dishes.”). For similar reasons, the Obama campaign has encountered blowback over the punctuation in its slogan for the 2012 campaign, which is “Forward.” — period included. Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of the National Economic Council, has been quoted as complaining that because of the period, the feel of the slogan is “like ‘forward, now stop.’”
Habitual e-mailers, texters and posters convey quite precise nuances through punctuation, which is after all one of the points of punctuation. A friend’s 12-year-old daughter once said that in her view, a single exclamation point is fine, as is three, but never two. My friend asked her where this rule came from and the girl said, “Nowhere. It’s just something you learn.”
On one episode of the sitcom “The Office,” Jim got a text from the boss telling him to bring a set of golf clubs to Florida. Jim didn’t want to go at all and told his wife, Pam, that he was going to text back two question marks. Pam said: “No, just do one. Two question marks is kind of aggressive. You know, it’s like wha-what??”
Though they probably don’t put as much thought into it as Pam, some people are artists with the punctuation keys. Here’s a status update posted this spring by a Facebook friend of mine:
“Holy moses! (pun intended) Marc drove through the night to surprise us for Passover!! It worked!! What a great surprise!!!!! Love these kids.”
Note the exclamation point pattern: 1-0-2-2-5-0. It builds to a crescendo of excitement; the last sentence is the most emotional, yet the punctuation treatment is so pleasingly understated that the period expresses not irony but sincere feeling.
The Interrobang
Internet writing also encourages extravagant combining of exclamation points and question marks. This punctuation yoking, traditionally confined to comic-book ejaculations such as “What the ?!…,” had a brief moment in the sun in the 1960s, when, according to aWeb site devoted to this tale, an ad man named Martin K. Speckter promoted the idea of combining the two marks into one, called the “Interrobang.” The Wall Street Journal endorsed the idea, giving the example “‘Who forgot to put gas in the car?’ where the question mark alone just isn’t adequate.”Interrobang was included in some dictionaries, and for a time you could buy a typewriter with a key dedicated to the mark, but it never quite caught on.
Online writing surely shares the spirit of the interrobang, but the symbol itself has not reappeared. I believe that’s because it’s imprecise: “!?” is very different from “?!”, and you lose the nuance when you combine the two marks. You can see what I mean in this online comment about emoticons that uses both sequences:
“The smiley!? That bastard love child of Inchoate Thought and Lazy Imprecision?! Heaven preserve us.”
Question-exclamation combos — to which I’ll give the acronym QEC — have made their way into print in recent decades, mostly in rendered quotations in journalism and fiction. In 2003, the Houston Chronicle writer Jonathan Feigen nicely captured then-basketball coach Jeff Van Gundy’s incredulity when told of his mother’s comment that he had always been very competitive in family Ping-Pong games: “‘Pingpong!?’ Jeff Van Gundy shrieked. ‘That’s really news? Pingpong!?’”
At this point, multiple exclamation points and question marks have not made much headway in printed prose; they’re still confined to the mode of ironic hyperbole pioneered by Tom Wolfe in the ’60s. But the QEC has started to show up, to good effect, in books and essays. In her 2009 book “The Purity Myth,” Jessica Valenti writes, “I’ve thought often about why—why?!—anyone, especially other women, would try to disrupt feminist work that combats violence.”
In that sentence, the QEC does what punctuation is supposed to do: help a writer express her thought. Having already made the Internet its dominion, it’s a comer in print.
Ben Yagoda
Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own blog, Not One-Off Britishisms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

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