The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On the Abuse of the Exclamation Point...

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

First things first: an announcement!

We will soon be adding an FAQ, and some other fun goodies, as well as updating our music selection. I know that the same songs can get boring after a while.

Also, my poem, The Torturer's Boy, is featured in the current issue of Bull Spec Magazine. I encourage you all to check it out, and buy an issue if you're so inclined. It's quite a magazine, with some pretty awesome fiction inside!

Now, without further ado, I'd like to introduce my newest talking point...

The Abuse of the Exclamation Point

Periods are necessary. Quotes and Apostrophes aren't "optional". Commas are a clean, quick way to separate, and list items. Colons: they're technical; semi-colons are experimental and academic. Parentheses (I avoid them when I can) make my inner voice whisper like that guy at the table who thinks no one can hear him, while em-dashes—the parentheses' louder, more contemporary cousin—are a bit of a trend right now. Hyphens make even the smoothest of sentences appear helter-skelter; capitol letters make the inner voice SHOUT for recognition. Slashes are best suited for technical and/or academic works. Ellipses are… well, you know. We can't live without question marks, now can we? And, oh my stars, is that an interrobang‽

You can't have a properly formed sentence without some form of punctuation. The literary world is built on the assumption that writing, as an art, can be defined and generalized by its characters of separation. But there is one mark of punctuation that I wish had never been printed. And that eponymous mark is the exclamation point.

The exclamation point is the least understood member of the punctuation family. It's annoying, childish, and for the most part, unnecessary. Why, you may ask, do I choose to pick on this poor mark? It's so obtrusive! It gets in the way! It makes everything look juvenile! It makes you end every sentence on a high note! And if you're not careful, and you use more than one, you look like a spammer!!!

Annoyed yet?

Most sentences can be conveyed with a sense of urgency without adding an exclamation point. Indeed, most of the time the use of particular mark of punctuation (also known as a "bang") jerks the reader out of the story or article.

Just as a pianist knows when to change the dynamic tone of her music, so does the reader tune his ear to the conversational shifts within the prose. It is patronizing and demeaning for an author to assume that their reader lacks the intellectual prowess to distinguish between the mediocre and the revolutionary without the help of a tiny line-and-dot on the paper that looks more like the result of an ink spell than any sort of literary genius.

Don't even get me started on using a bang outside of dialogue. It's bad enough to have to put up with a character who insists on using the dang thing; outside of their irritating voice, however, you find the realm of childish writing. For example:

"Jim's hands clutched at the wheel. He pulled as hard as he could, but the car refused to obey. He was going to crash!"

Just that one little exclamation point made an already horrid passage even worse. We know Jim is tense—heck, if the story is any good, we'll be tense right along with him. We don't need faulty punctuation to affirm this assumption.

Now, there are a few exceptions to my staunch anti-exclamationism. One being the use of a bang after a single word. "Go!", "Run!", "Jim!" or "Inconceivable!" are all examples of exclamation points that know their place. They exist to augment the prose. We as readers don't stumble over these single-word examples because they are natural, just as a period or question mark would seem in their proper place. And no, I'm not advocating comic-book style punctuation and onomatopoeia within prose (Bang! Whoosh! Zing!); let us be reasonable, folks.

The only other time it's cool to use an exclamation point is if you wrote pre-1920's fiction. Victorian era prose is home to some of the most melodramatic characters ever to grace the pages of English literature, and of course, they need punctuation to match.

Dorian Gray immediately comes to mind. He often languished over posh furniture, mingling amongst a crowd at a crush, crying out. You could say that Dorian Gray was a connoisseur of exclamation points, and, because of his personality, such a mark fits. This same principal applies to most fiction written before about 1920. I'm not sure why, but it does, and I'm not going to question the unspoken laws of literary history. So don't go marking through your Victorian lit with a red pen… save that for your own, exclamation-ridden manuscripts.

Someone once told me that you have a two exclamation point per novel allowance. No more; no less. And I think that this principle holds true for most of what I've said. Use your marks wisely; don't abuse them, and you'll come to love them. As Oscar Wilde once said, "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon… well, I put it back again."

As a reader, it's insulting to be patronized on paper. As a writer, if I feel the need to stoop in order reach my reader, I have to stop and rethink my audience. Therefore, as a community, we need to rebel against the condescending nature of the exclamation point and just move on. It's juvenile—it's outdated—and let's face it: we've grown past the exclamation point.

Further reading: this hilariously serious article on the exclamation point

*Yes, I am, in fact, aware that this is incredibly geeky.
**If you got the Princess Bride reference, you're my hero.

Posted on July 21st, 2010


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