Not to be a scaremonger, but what if the planet runs out of exclamation points?
Then what will we do? How will we convey enthusiasm? Or let each other know that we’re not angry?
Without exclamation points, how can we tell friend we’ll “be right there” without sounding annoyed, or communicate to a colleague that we’re “looking forward to the PowerPoint presentation”?
If only words still worked!!!
The dwindling supply can be traced to the rise of voice-free modes of communication like texting and Twitter, and to rampant exclamation inflation. It now takes three exclamation points to do the job previously handled by one.
“They are bubbling up out of the sidewalk,” said Geoff Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information.
And they can’t be stopped. Nunberg is a respected scholar, and was once a #NeverExclaimer, or at least a #RarelyExclaimer, but the exclamation points have won.
“After Years Of Restraint, A Linguist Says ‘Yes!’ To The Exclamation Point,” read the NPR headline on his 2017 confession.
“Look at the lengths people go to find workarounds to avoid [exclamation points],” he said on “Fresh Air.” “Some suggest replacing them with more descriptive language. . . . Or you can separate your words with what I think of as power periods, as in ‘Best. Party. Ever.’ But at that point, avoiding an exclamation point becomes more of a fetish than using one.”
Nowadays, exclamation points are supposed to be all happiness and good cheer. “See you at the podiatrist’s office!”
But in a world where family members would rather text each other from inside the same house than risk face-to-face communication, they are also a mark of desperation. Today’s exclamation points are there to jolly things along. To achieve what the heart cannot.
In Cambridge, novelist and ghost writer Laura Zigman uses exclamation points as a marital aid. She and her husband have turned basic text exchanges like “I’ll get the milk” (possibly aggrieved) into the happy-to-help “I’ll get the milk!”
“It has cut our fighting based on misunderstanding of each other’s tone down enormously,” she said. “We didn’t even get it from a therapist.”
Was there ever a more pathetic cry for help than the exclamation point screaming from Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign logo? “Jeb!”
Exclamation points have become so dominant that not only have they moved in on the period’s turf, but they’re retroactively changing the tone of words. In 2018, an exclamation-free “OK” reads hostile.
“Want to go for a walk?”
“What’s the matter?”
“I hate when you get like this!”
Many of the very people who are infusing their communications with exclamation points hate themselves as they hit “shift 1,” but it takes a strong person to withstand cultural pressure!
Desperate to rein himself in, Eric Berman, director of communications at the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, resolved last New Year’s Eve to quit the exclamation points that were infecting his personal communications (but had so far left his professional writing untouched).
He didn’t make it to February.
“I couldn’t go cold turkey,” he said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t sound enthusiastic.”
With exclamation points multiplying faster than CBD-infused gum drops, a new breed of cop is walking the beat: the exclamation police.
Zach Braiker, CEO of Refine + Focus, a Boston marketing strategy firm, has told employees they can use only one exclamation mark per written communication, a limit particularly needed by younger workers, who were using five or six exclamation points to express gratitude or joy, he said.
In the business world, he told workers, “you will not get taken seriously if the way you communicate is through exclamation points.”
It would be nice to think so! But in truth, the exclamations are coming from the top.
As of late August 2017, Donald Trump had tweeted more than 13,000 exclamation points since joining Twitter in 2009, according to a count by The Washington Post. In one, @realDonald Trump treated his followers to 15 exclamation points.
“This cannot be the the Academy Awards #Oscars AWFUL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he tweeted on March 2, 2014.
Corporate America is also being overtaken. In 2017, Google started offering Gmail users “Smart Reply”— three prewritten responses to an incoming e-mail. They often read as if they were written by an exclamation-drunk tween.
“Cool!” “Very funny!” “Glad you enjoyed it!”
Even as we rail against our punctuation overlord, one has to admire its ascent. Before 1970, the exclamation point didn’t have its own dedicated key on standard manual typewriters, according to a 2012 Smithsonian.com piece examining its history. Before then, the magazine reported, you had to type a period, and then use the backspace to go back and stick an apostrophe above it.
But by 1993, as “Seinfeld” fans will recall, the exclamation point had amassed so much power it not only starred in an episode, but ruined a relationship between Elaine and her boyfriend Jake. His crime: not using an exclamation point.
Elaine: “It’s nothing, forget it. I just found it curious.”
Where do we go from here? Some exclamation victims are hoping a new punctuation mark will ride to the rescue, something between a period and an exclamation point that would, in the words of one desperate exclaimer, “denote that you’re not completely disinterested and not in a terrible mood, everything’s just fine, just going about your day and work, perfectly pleasant, etc.”
It can’t come soon enough!!!
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.