In this modern world of social media and texting, we’re all familiar with the exclamation point, that little stroke of punctuation that takes a flat declaration and gives it emotion, pizzazz if you will.
Most of us use exclamation points on a daily basis, so we must have it mastered, right? What more could I possibly have to say?
The problem is that texting and social media, for the most part, aren’t writing. They’re much more informal, akin to speech in visible form. (John McWhorter gives an excellent explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”)
What role, then, do exclamation points play in writing?
Less Is More
Whether you’re writing a blog post, an academic thesis, or a novel, less is definitely more.
Think how often you use exclamation points in a Facebook or Twitter post. Now, imagine multiplying that out into something the size of a novel.
Exclamation points are used to indicate high emotion or stress. You just can’t maintain that level for 500–1,000 pages. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
There are a few possible effects, none of them desirable. You’ll exhaust your readers with the prolonged high emotion; the punctuation will lose its meaning; your readers will get disgusted with the amateur quality of your writing and move on to other authors; or all three.
If you rarely use exclamation points, imagine how much of an impact it’ll have when you do throw one in.
In some formal writing, the use of any exclamation points can be seen as unprofessional. So, know your audience and the standards of your field.
Along the theme of less is more, most publishing professionals recommend avoiding multiple exclamation points bunched together. The prevailing thought is that it’s just overkill. You made your point with one, especially if you use them sparingly anyway; more are unnecessary.
So, use as many as you want on social media, but if you’re writing for publication, it’s best to rein yourself in.
Conveying Emotion without Exclamation Points
Now, I’m not saying you should never use exclamation points in your writing, especially if you’re writing for a nonacademic or less formal audience. But because of the strength of emphasis, they should be used carefully.
So, how do you still convey emotion and emphasis, if you’re cutting down on your strong punctuation? I’m glad you asked.
First, the stronger, more skilled your writing, the less you need to rely on punctuation to communicate emotion. If you’ve already built tension through your prose, often, the punctuation is superfluous. Your readers will understand the emotion of the scene through context.
Second, something as simple as rearranging the word order in a sentence can affect meaning and emphasis.
Or you could use character formatting to created emphasis where you want it, especially in dialogue. Placing a word or two in bold or italics can actually be more effective than an exclamation point. Consider this classic example.
I didn’t say she stole my money!
I didn’t say she stole my money. (Someone else said it.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (I didn’t say it.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (I implied it.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (Someone else stole it.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (She may have borrowed it.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (She stole from someone else.)
I didn’t say she stole my money. (She stole something else.)
Which word you choose to emphasize also affects nuances of tone. Depending on where you place the emphasis, it might be defensive, wheedling, aggressive, frustrated, or a dozen other possibilities, whereas an exclamation point serves as a general highlight on the sentence as a whole.
As I said above, there is a time and a place for exclamation points. So, how do you use one correctly?
First, an exclamation point might fall at the end of the sentence to denote a tone of emphasis or stress.
It can also replace a question mark to form a rhetorical question.
What was I thinking!
Or you can combine it with a question mark when necessary for sentence meaning, though this construction is best avoided whenever possible.
Why did you scream fire!?
When used with quotation marks or parentheses, whether or not the exclamation point falls inside or outside of the other punctuation, depends on what part of the sentence it’s connected to. If it’s part of the quoted material, it goes inside; if part of the whole sentence instead, it goes outside.
He actually said, “I don’t love you anymore”! (The person quoting him is more worked up than he was.)
He said, “I don’t love you anymore!” (He yelled it.)
We watched Gone with the Wind last night (a much better choice than Oklahoma!). (The exclamation point is part of the movie title.)
I can’t believe you wanted to watch Oklahoma! last night (even though Gone with the Wind was showing in the theater)!
And if a comma or period would normally fall in the same place as the exclamation point, the comma or period is omitted.
He said, “I hate you!” (No period at the end, even though the narrator isn’t the one screaming.)
“I hope so,” he said.
“I hope so!” he said.
Just like anything with strong impact or emphasis, exclamation points have their purpose and place. But if we overuse or misuse them, they lose their efficacy and can actually do more damage than good to our writing.
Experiment and play with your writing, but each time you place an exclamation point, ask yourself, “Is this the best tool for this particular job, and how does it affect the rest of my writing?”
Casagrande, June. The Best Punctuation Book, Period. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014.
University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. 17th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.