Straight to the Point: An Examination Behind the Exclamation
Correspondence is key, just as face-to-face emotions or needs drive a conversation. And while writers, readers, and everyone in between can tell you the chatter in black and white (and blue iMessages) are able to move those same online conversation mountains through specific punctuation cues, it still begs the question: Are we truly showcasing our needs, or slapping hyperboles on our sentences to show a polite e-smile?
In comes the exclamation point!
Highly used, highly abused, equally as contested. Between the emails, the texts, the captions, and the blurbs, it’s safe to say that we’re all – collectively – a bit unsure of its proper use case. In practice, some businesses revel in its action, showing that they are just as conversational as their customers; others stay far away, fearing that it puts up a juvenile front. Influencers and their online stage alike rejoice at its existence – the exclamation point gives life and personality to a flat-screen world. Emailers everywhere are humbled by its addition – how else would you show that your asks and your “thanks!” are really meant without malice (or a behind-the-screen R.B.F.)?
We’re all over the place, it’s true. And, I’m not sure that this divide will ever shrink. So, as if on cue, in come the critics:
If you’ve spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you’ve probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It’s supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It’s the saddest kind of failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed inserting exclamation points was the literary equivalent of an author laughing at his own jokes, but that’s not the case in the modern age; now, the exclamation point signifies creative confusion. All it illustrates is that even the writer can’t tell if what they’re creating is supposed to be meaningful, frivolous, or cruel. It’s an attempt to insert humor where none exists, on the off chance that a potential reader will only be pleased if they suspect they’re being entertained. Of course, the reader isn’t really sure, either. They just want to know when they’re supposed to pretend to be amused. All those extraneous exclamation points are like little splatters of canned laughter: They represent the “form of funny,” which is more easily understood (and more easily constructed) than authentic funniness.
― Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur
Is Chuck wrong? I dare you to audit your last four outbound emails and three outstanding text messages; you’ll see the little splatters of forced excitement sprinkled everywhere.
But, while his critique may be harsh in nature and true in practice, it doesn’t mean that the exclamation point should be outlawed. Instead, we should use it where it belongs. In distinct humor, in true eager fashion, in showcases of bliss, and in the sincerest of wishes, get straight to the point and insert! Show your hand and tell of your conviction. In times of hog-tied politeness, or to just “soften things up,” leave it be and use your words to convey what you really mean, just how you mean it.
Because it’s not impolite to forego, but is certainly so to force feelings that just aren’t there. Set a personal standard – where applicable – and curb your expectations of others while you’re at it; Sally’s email asking you to help straighten up the workspace, which didn’t end in a smiley or exclamation point, doesn’t mean she’s mad at you.
Don’t be as unforgiving as Chuck or Fitzgerald, and don’t be as key-happy as a teen Instagram influencer, but instead, be yourself. Fix up your toolbox and use your marks to mean something – they’ll stand for infinitely more.
Emojis? Let’s take this one keyboard at a time.