On the overuse of exclamation points.

On the overuse of exclamation points.

On the overuse of exclamation points.

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 30 2007 2:56 PM

So Many Exclamation Points!

A new style guide says we should pepper our e-mails with them. Really?

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Hence the salvation that exclamation offers. Like 24-hour cable newscasters, we compensate for the unworthiness of our meanings by being emphatic! (A good rule of thumb: The more insignificant the message, the more exclamations it will require.) It's a Freudian reaction formation: I really mean it! I loved the conference! OMG did I LOVE it!!!!!!

In this sense, the abuse of the exclamation mark results from a danger that is intrinsic to e-communication. Sentences were once composed under threat of permanence, and it was this threat—the specter of an unchangeable document forever to be read and reread—that kept a writer honest and endowed the humble meeting of pen and page with the consequence and irrevocability of action. No longer, however. E-communication has divorced the written word from the permanent—we are still "writing" but into a kind of semi-amnesic, digital void, so that actual thought and inflated chat often come at the same falsely loud, and yet easily unheard, volume. (Indeed, because e-mails are so often ephemeral, it is easy to forget how permanent and consequential they can be. Think of Michael "Brownie" Brown, the former FEMA head, whose infamously glib e-mails at the height of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort open Send.)


To risk sounding like an old schoolmarm: If everything is emphasized, nothing is. Pedestrian e-mails "kicked up a notch" or juiced up on bangers simply contribute to the noise.

But that doesn't mean the exclamation point should be tossed to the scrap heap. In fact, a stable of contemporary writers is waging an ingenious campaign to redeem the devalued punctuation mark. I'm thinking of people like Rebecca Curtis, Sam Lipsyte, and Arthur Bradford, who have all been influenced by Denis Johnson, a modern master of Io. No curmudgeon, Johnson sprinkles exclamation points at a rate that would dizzy Elmore Leonard and with such ingenuity that they do capture a true, and nearly religious, "wonder." Most critically, they attend moments of fragile feeling rather than, say, wild interconnectedness. Moments that might easily escape notice (especially if you have your nose in a phone), and moments of quiet, too. Take Johnson on a woman's scream after receiving news of her husband's death: "What a pair of lungs!" Or Johnson on an MS patient in a hospital: "No more pretending for him!" Or Johnson on pink baby rabbits: "Little feet! Eyelids! Even whiskers!" That's better than any conference I've been to.

Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City. His novel, The Poser, is out this month.