November 15, 2010

The plight of the exclamation point.

Poor exclamation point.  It is unmercifully abused.

As punctuation goes, the exclamation point is quite powerful.  It conveys elevated emotion that transforms a sentence from a simple statement into a passionate communication.  Case in point:

  • I am so happy.
  • I am so happy!
  • I am so happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or how about:

  • I am so angry.
  • I am so angry!
  • I am so angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The very presence of the “!” puctuates the passion behind the feeling…so why do we sometimes feel like a solitary exclamation point is insufficient?  And is this an acceptable solution to communicating the emotion behind our feelings in writing?

Professionally speaking…no.  In business communication, multiple exclamation points can come across to the reader as juvenile and a bit lazy.  Their presence says “I have not taken the time to select the rich, meaningful words that will accurately convey my emotions, so I’ll just add a whole bunch of exclamation points to compensate for the lack of feeling.”

If we are “happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”…are we not ecstatic, thrilled, or elated?  And if we are “angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”…are we not incensed, livid, furious, or enraged?  Seriously.  Some of those words are so powerful, they don’t even require one exclamation point to communicate the strength of their sentiment.  In fact, that quiet, subtle strength can often be far more influential than adding a dozen exclamation points. 

There is certainly a time and place for multiple exclamation points.  Believe me, I’m the first one to type “Yay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” to a Redpoint colleague who’s just informed me that one of our clients is going to be featured in the New York Times.  It’s the perfect way to communicate my spontaneous unbridled joy.  But if I got that news from the editor of the New York Times directly?  No way.  It definitely would be something more like “I’m delighted you found (client) of interest,” or “(client) is thrilled that you are interested.”

So, when writing professionally, take a moment to choose more powerful words and give that poor little piece of punctuation a break.  It served us well when we were in junior high, but now that we’re all grown up, it’s time for us to be responsible in how we use it.

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