16 Jan 2016

The Exclamation Mark Has Changed. Shouldn't We?

There's No Point In Fighting Any More

Whiskery, moth-eaten grammar pedants are often to be heard lamenting the overuse and enfeeblement of the exclamation mark. It’s a modern-day gripe that’s galvanised a great many of my fellow copywriters too. “The exclamation mark is losing all its emphasis!” they insist, “bloody kids slopping them around willy-nilly”. And they’re right. Its correct usage is largely misunderstood, if not brazenly ignored, while the Great British public have become desensitised, slack-jawed and drooling, like filthy addicts, incapable of registering their impact anymore.

Instant messaging, social networking, click-bait, and email-enabled smart phones have made written communication a pervasive part of our everyday lives. Treasured handwritten love letters have basically been replaced by photos of each other’s bits on Snapchat – glance once and they’re gone. It’s only natural that verbal exchanges are getting lazy, words are being abbreviated, and emphasis or drama is increasingly conveyed with a piece of punctuation.

Just yesterday I received a text message that read:

“Thank you!!!!! You’re amazing!!!!!”

Now I think I’m pretty great too, but five exclamation marks might have been overdoing it. Unless the sender usually uses six, in which case, why is there one missing? Surely I deserve a sixth like everyone else? The problem here is weighting. If our liberal usage of the exclamation mark continues there will become a point where a mere single mark will appear unimportant. A simple “Thanks!” will be interpreted as a profound ingratitude. The cheek!

To address this worry, and to preserve the power of the exclamatory symbol a great many people have tried to rein our usage back. The Internet is fit to burst with blog posts issuing strict instructions on its proper deployment: “You must NEVER use more than one”, my good peers bluster, hot in the face and fighting to the death, admirably perhaps, for their craft. Blog posts such as this one actually compare the use of exclamation marks to the excessive prescription of antibiotics, and humans, presumably, to super resistant strains of bacteria. This writer has even prepared a handy flowchart to answer the question of using an exclamation mark for you. Now if everyone could just print one off please. No? Oh okay then.

So what should copywriters do? Should we continue to stand up for our superfluous piece of grammar? Should we continue to churn out blog posts in the vain hope of changing people’s attitude to these handy little pointed sticks? I say no we shouldn’t. It’s a pointless, unwinnable battle. Let’s relinquish them instead. People should be free to use and abuse the exclamation mark in any way they see fit. It’s largely useless as the tool it once was anyway. But it serves a broader function now, reappointed as something new, textual seasoning if you like, or hundreds and thousands, to be sprinkled liberally across our casual messages in the hope of giving them a vague pep.

As for our marketing content – our web copy, our blog posts and advertisements – copywriters shouldn’t need an exclamation mark anyway. A few well-chosen words can convey far, far more than pressing shift 1.