Early in my career as a journalist, an editor fine-tuned my use of exclamation marks. Our writing style dictated that only a single exclamation mark ever be used. No matter how dramatic or sensational my reporting, multiple exclamation marks were not permitted! However, it wasn’t until recently, decades later, working in a different industry, when a colleague shunned the use of the punctuation mark altogether, that I realised how truly polarising it is!
Love it or hate it, and often relegated at the bottom of the punctuation hierarchy, I never imagined an entire book could be dedicated to the exclamation mark. How wrong could I be? I was fascinated to learn a wealth of knowledge dating back to circa 1400. From historical texts and classic novels to smartphones and spam email, this fascinating piece of punctuation has made a mark on nearly every sphere of popular culture. “It’s been called the screamer, the slammer, the bang, the gasper and the shriek… nothing says excitement! Like an exclamation mark,” says literary scholar Florence Hazrat on a tour through the history of the exclamation mark. I was delighted to discover one of my favourite scenes from television’s Seinfeld featured: “In a notable scene between Elaine (the female lead character from Seinfeld)and her then-boyfriend Jake, Elaine notices the glaring absence of ! at the end of a note Jake had taken for her from a friend who’d called to say she’d had a baby. Elaine wonders if such punctuational neglect might indicate a lack of emotional interest in her life… Rapidly escalating, the exclamation mark conflict leads to a hot-headed break-up with Jake storming out of the apartment, shouting to Elaine to go ahead and put an air-sliced !-gesticulation on his parting statement: ‘I’m leaving’.”
Then there’s the use of exclamatory bookends, including Bart Simpson’s famous first words and iconic catchphrase, ¡Ay, Caramba!
I was also intrigued to learn how new intonation marks were proposed as language reforms to convey love, conviction, authority, irony, acclamation and doubt. Although these never took hold, in today’s digital age, emojis compete with punctuation in conveying emotions. Florence says that grammar rules are not eternal or universal. They serve us at a particular time with available technology and for a particular purpose.
Plus, the difference between an exclamation mark and exclamation point? It’s English versus American usage. Regardless, exclamations lose their impact if overused and are best used following an emphatic declaration, interjection or strong command. An Admirable Point will appeal to writers and those interested in popular culture across genre and time.
Florence Hazrat is a researcher of Renaissance literature, a podcaster, media commentator, writer and educator. Follow Florence Hazrat online.
Reviewer: Andrea Molloy Profile Books, RRP $27.99