Friday, February 8, 2019

The Exuberant Exclamation Point!!! It’s Not Going Gentle Into That Punctuation Slush Pile

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

I’m sitting in a hospital waiting area for open-heart surgery patients—one of whom is my husband. The text notification on my phone pings with a message of concern from a friend. The message ends with three exclamation points and the following clarification (just in case the three marks failed to convey the intensity of sincerity):  “Lots of exclamation points to indicate sincerity and concern.”

I text my friend and tell her how much I appreciate her concern, but I don’t tell her she didn’t need three—three!!! exclamation points to communicate it. I still subscribe to the one-mark-will-do-it school of thinking. Traditionally a single exclamation point’s whole purpose was to draw attention—Surprise! Astonishment! Shock! Unlike the leisurely curve of the question mark, the very shape of the punctuation point—straight, commanding like a rocket on liftoff, or a kid on a trampoline—arrests the reader and says, “See how excited I am!” 

Grammar gurus advise writers to use one at a time, and even at that to use them sparingly. In my writing circles, editors consider an effusive presence of exclamation points the mark of a novice writer. George Orwell reportedly “shunned” them. Novelist Elmore Leonard advises writers to: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” (Although not every distinguished writer subscribes to this conservative approach—American author Joyce Carol Oates, whose awards and accolades stream behind her like a Tibetan prayer flag, used fifteen exclamation points in the first fifteen pages of her memoir.)

Apparently this conveyor of punctuation excitement is causing a stir on another front—electronic communication. A quick Internet search reveals how tenacious, how adaptable and how controversial this mark has become, especially in texts and emails where its meaning has morphed from a jarring shout to a cyber smile.

In their email etiquette handbook, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe claim the exclamation point “infuse{s} electronic communication with human warmth.” And the more the merrier. A Twitter poll asked how many exclamation marks someone would need to convey genuine enthusiasm. The most popular answer from eight hundred responses—three!!! 

If manuscript writers worry whether one exclamation point is too boisterous a presence on the page, digital communicators fret over whether three, or four, or five are sufficient to impart their sincerity. Or even more worrisome—what should they make of a response that was exclamation point-free? Did it mean the sender was annoyed, uninterested, or offended? 

I have to admit, between the troublesome daily news and a husband whose arteries are as clogged as river of beaver dams, I’ve been ignorant of the emotional upheaval surrounding this punctuation mark. But it is enough of a concern in the business world that The Wall Street Journal headlined an article the “tyranny of the exclamation point,” which is “causing email and text anxiety.”

Although it didn’t get its own key on the typewriter until the 70s, the exclamation point was born to make a big effect and true to its nature, it continues to do so. Stylistic preferences come and punctuation practices go, but it seems the tenacious exclamation point is not going gentle into the slush pile of outdated symbols.


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Wonderful post!!! Seriously, thanks. I read a blogpost last week that warned against using more than 3 of these precious little marks every 100 pages. UGH!
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

  2. As an editor, I have to tame those exclamation points in writer's articles and manuscripts. However, I tend to be an exuberant user myself on social media and personal texting. LOL!

    1. Well, Ralene, maybe it's good to have a place where exuberance can have its day!

  3. Well, since Orwell and Leonard are not my favorite authors, I will continue to use exclamation points, much like J. C. Oates. I love (and use) three often. But never in my manuscripts. Usually only in emails and social media. Hey, I'm trying to infuse these electronic communications with some human warmth!!! Haha.

  4. Your post reminded me of my high school senior English teacher way back in 1970. She drilled into us that "one exclamation point is sufficient!"