For decades, I resisted the exclamation mark, convinced it was an ugly, generally unnecessary piece of punctuation with no place in a self-respecting writer's repertoire.
So, exclamation marks are really not that awful!
For decades, I resisted the exclamation mark, convinced it was an ugly, generally unnecessary piece of punctuation with no place in a self-respecting writer's repertoire. Then I became aware that my attitude was changing. Since I knew this must be someone else's fault, I blamed a young colleague. "I can never forgive you," I finally told her, "for drawing me into your world of exclamation marks." The rebuke was light-hearted, but would have had no effect in any case. She was merely following the style common to her generation, one increasingly adopted by those of us who, I would have said in the past, should know better. To this day, she litters nearly every e-mail and text message, not to mention her Facebook updates and Twitter "tweets", with exclamation marks. Very often, the content is not an exclamation at all and would read perfectly well with a full stop.
Until I relented, my own objection reflected the views of two writers, Lynne Truss and F Scott Fitzgerald. Their opinions were unknown to me at the time, but when I read now that Truss called exclamation marks "attention seeking" and that Fitzgerald likened their use to "laughing at your own jokes", I realise that this is how I used to think. Two present colleagues alerted me to an article by Stuart Jeffries in the London-based Guardian newspaper. He pokes gentle fun at the Quebecois town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! and diligently cites Truss and Fitzgerald, Terry Pratchett, Elmore Leonard, our old friend Fowler - all against - and two eager apologists, one of whom, David Shipley, is an editor at The New York Times, which somehow seems incongruous for a champion of exclamation marks.
Jeffries shares my hunch that the growing attachment of the not-so-young to exclamation marks can be explained by a determination to appear cool, though we should not overlook the mark's occasional use as a show of warmth, for example when employed to convey enthusiasm. But it was a voice from the grave that reminded me of the many contexts in which exclamation marks are entirely acceptable. Larry Trask, an American scholar of Basque who became professor of linguistics at Sussex University in England, seemed to get the balance right. He approved of the mark to express strong feelings, as in "Help!" or "Johnny, don't touch that!", and in personal correspondence (which would exonerate my young friend).
However, Prof Trask, who died five years ago, also wrote: "Exclamation marks are usually out of place in formal writing. Using them frequently will give your work a breathless, almost childish, quality ... don't use an exclamation mark unless you're certain it's necessary and never use two or three of them in a row." As a linguist, he will have known that the exclamation mark does occupy a respectable place, even in formal writing, in languages other than English. I recall a religious leader in Monaco using one at the end of a written statement in French praising the achievements of Prince Rainier, who had just died. Although most people translating the sentence into English would drop the exclamation mark, it was a true exclamation far removed from clear misuse, as shown in one of Prof Trask's own examples: "In 1848, gold was discovered in California!"
It is one thing to abandon high moral ground on the issue, and quite another to have no idea where to draw the line. But what happened when I told myself that, in strict observance of the Trask formula, I always paused for thought before typing an exclamation mark and never used two or more in a row? I quickly remembered that at a football website I edit, the headline to mark my team's escape from relegation ended with the word "safe". In the emotion of the moment, I had attached not one, nor even two but eight exclamation marks.
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org