Parents Talk Back

I’m waging a lonely war against a rampant punctuation mark.

A year ago, The New York Times wrote forebodingly about the decline of the period, which now signifies a weighty intent if used while texting. But I am far more disturbed by the rise of the exclamation point. Everywhere I look, I’m bombarded by this tall, pointed signifier of overwhelming emotion.

Has this punctuation mark become ubiquitous because our discourse has risen to a fever pitch? Or because we’ve co-opted a mark of astonishment or severity to instead convey solidarity or friendliness?

I took my concerns to two language scholars, who both tried to convince me to give up the fight.

Exclamation mark avoidance is just as much a fetish as its abuse, said Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley. Overuse is particularly vexing to writers and journalists who have been trained to use the marks with restraint, he said.

I argued that those of us who use it sparingly are on the right side of language.

Relax, Nunberg practically exclaimed at me. It’s not that there’s a proliferation of exclamation points. It’s just that we see a lot more casual conversation, in the form of texts and tweets, that used to be spoken. And people attempt to reproduce the rhythms and contours of natural speech in their conversational writing, he said.

That’s true, I agreed. But I suspect there’s more to it than that.

The president himself is a lover of the exclamation point. Philip Cowell of the BBC writes that in 2016 alone, @realDonaldTrump posted 2,251 tweets using exclamation marks. He’s far more likely to end a tweet with a shriek than not.

“Overuse of any punctuation mark tells us something about ourselves, in the same way overuse of any object does. How you punctuate your sentences might have something to do with how you punctuate your life,” Cowell writes. Drawing attention to itself, the exclamation point is the selfie of grammar.

Preach, my comrade. In its excess, the exclamation point is garish and loses all potency.

Melanie Walsh, a doctorate student in American Literature at Washington University, is teaching a course in the fall about the pressures that social media puts on language.

“The way we use a period or other punctuation is evolving right before our very eyes,” she said. But she adds that this is not a bad thing: Language is always evolving. Maybe an individual exclamation mark doesn’t have the same meaning anymore -- maybe now five exclamation marks in a row have a new meaning.

But there’s no consensus in this new meaning, I said. It’s cloudy. Some people only use exclamations with close friends, to differentiate personal from business correspondence. Others use more exclamation marks with acquaintances to imply a familiarity that doesn’t really exist. Some use it to soften a message that may come across too strong, while others want to pump up their words with a bullhorn at the end.

Can we really trust people who end every text or tweet with an exclamation?

Walsh says she shies away from making value judgements about changes in language, adding that our ever-changing devices also influence our punctuation use.

“When I had a flip phone, I would be stingy with exclamation points,” she said. “When I got an iPhone, I could rattle off a million so easily.”

There’s a lot of historical baggage in how we use language, Walsh said. It shapes the way we think of ourselves and the way the world should be. We consider it an affront when people use language in a way that we don’t think is correct.

“I’m not saying you’re being nostalgic and curmudgeonly,” Walsh said, in an attempt to protect my feelings. In fact, I took that description as a compliment.

To further prove my point, I searched through recent tweets.

Dan (@sweetdeedly) wrote: “I forget that old people take the exclamation point at the end of a sentence in a text as yelling angrily and it ruins my life.”

(The olds are right, Dan.)

Kara Baskin (@kcbaskin) demonstrated how women use the mark to soften the way their message is perceived:

“-writes gentle, but firm, email

-immediately feels guilty

-adds an exclamation point

-feels better”

(Ladies, please stop feeling guilty for saying what you mean. It’s OK to use a period.)

Meanwhile, JustaGuy (@JMurray247) raised an existential issue: “Thx for the congratulatory text but you didn’t end it with an exclamation point so not sure if you’re happy for me or if you want to kill me”

(The omission could signify a difference in tone, a short attention span or just a lazy texter, JustaGuy.)

After arguing my case, I realized that my discomfort is likely an industry-specific form of snobbery, and puts me into a club of old grammar cranks.

Frankly, I’m fine with that.

(Note: This entire column was produced without deploying a single exclamatory missile, despite the writer’s very strong feelings on the subject.)

More like Parents Talk Back