Exclamation marks have become part of a social-media specific dialect to prompt humour and irreverence
by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village
Francis Scott Fitzgerald hated exclamation marks (“it’s like laughing at your own joke”), Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and James Joyce loved them, and Anton Chekov even wrote a short story in their honour. “Long considered the ‘fun uncle’ of the punctuation family, exclamation marks have been sneered at, overlooked and trivialised in literature for centuries”, writes UK author and editor of Penguin.co.uk Alice Vincent, in an article titled “In defence of the exclamation mark!” Children and budding writers are still being taught to use them sparingly but the time has come for literature to recognise the internet’s favourite sentence-ender, she adds. The internet age has brought about a radical reinvention of punctuation: in “text speak” three dots, or a question without a question mark, a dropped apostrophe, or a full stop, can become loaded with new meaning. A simple period, for example, is like a door being slammed in your face, says US author Gwen Rockwood. “OK” followed by a period is a way of letting the other person know that you are most definitely not OK. Rockwood recounts that a friend of hers was attacked by her teenage daughter for “aggressive punctuation”. She now avoids using periods so as not to look like “an out-of-touch boomer”. Exclamation marks, for their part, as socio-linguist and acclaimed author Gretchen McCulloch has pointed out, are now being used not as an intensity marker, but as a sincerity marker. Typing “great job” looks underwhelmed at best, sarcastic at worst, she says, but “great job!” is enough to make someone’s day. Where sincerity starts, irony soon follows, and so it has proved online, adds Vincent. Digitally literate millennials deploy them for self-deprecating wit (“I contain multitudes!”), and, in doing so, they rather prove Fitzgerald right – an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. That’s why we love it, she says.
Literature’s most-snubbed punctuation mark
With the invention of the printing press in the 14th and 15th century a standard system of punctuation was needed: this in turn led to a boom of inventive punctuation, including the exclamation mark, brackets (or parentheses), and the semicolon. The apostrophe originated in the early 16th Century and by the 18th century the dash and ellipses has also made their appearance. Our modern system of punctuation emerged in the 19th century. When it was first introduced the exclamation mark was used as a “point of admiration” (“I love your hat!”), writes Vincent. By the 17th century the mark was referred to as “the wonderer” (“Oh, what a magnificent hatstand!”). It wasn’t a mark of “exclamation” until Samuel Johnson said so, in the 18th century. The turn of the 20th century saw “an inevitable backlash to such jollity”, Vincent explains, with the exception of the modernists, who adored them (see Woolf, who liberally scattered her stream-of-consciousness prose with them). The typewriter was invented in the 19th century but a dedicated exclamation mark key wasn’t added until 1970 (!) as the mark wasn’t deemed necessary in professional writing. Dedicated enthusiasts had to make do by typing a full stop, then backspacing and placing a comma above it.
Punctuation in online communication
Social acronyms, abbreviations, emphatic capitals, expressive word lengthening, creative respellings, keysmashing, hashtags, emoji and a subtle use of punctuation are just some of the innovative ways to convey nuances of tone of voice that are changing the way we communicate online and replace cues found in face-to-face conversations. Punctuation marks have taken on new shapes too: colons, dashes and brackets have been repurposed as emoticons to try to capture variations of happy and sad. Something which UK author Julian Barnes deplores: he says he feels sorry for the exclamation mark, which has fallen from “high company” to becoming “the slag of punctuation, slumming around with emoticons and OMGs.”McCulloch sees these recent developments in a much more positive light. In her opinion, with the explosion of “normal” people writing online, nuanced writing is no longer the exclusive domain of professionals, and a new literary genre is being created, “informal” (unedited) writing: efficient, colourful, playful. McCulloch also argues that this new language is democratic, as it involves humans, online, collectively negotiating meanings of things like emoji (and punctuation, we add).
Punctuation in civil rights activism
Civil rights activists have been deploying punctuation to question the legitimacy of confessions, criticize justifications made for lynchings and highlight the undervaluing of Black expertise and knowledge for a long time, reads a recent article in The Conversation. Quotation marks have been used to convey suspicion, for example. In 1892 anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells used question marks within parentheses to interrogate descriptions of crimes supposedly committed by Black Americans: “So great is Southern hate and prejudice, they legally(?) hung poor little thirteen year old Mildrey Brown at Columbia”; “citizens broke(?) into the penitentiary and got their man”. More recently, in 1938, the Chicago Defender’s strategic use of quotation marks called into question official accounts of a Black man as a murderer. Punctuation can extend, contradict and play with meaning, says the author of the article, who adds that activism can also be an important companion to on-the-ground activism. “It reveals language’s capacity to transform the world and, at the same time, it exposes language’s often hidden role in maintaining structures of power”. And it can be a useful tool for activists to upend dominant narratives.
“Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A humorous approach to punctuation”, Brian Maye, June 26, 2021
“Treasured punctuation still resonates for traditional writers”, Gwen Rockwood, North Arkansas Democrat Gazette, June 17, 2021
“How Emojis Have Changed the Way We Communicate”, Shannon Correia, MUO, online technology publication
“How Black writers and journalists have wielded punctuation in their activism”, The Conversation,June 18, 2021
“In defence of the exclamation mark!”, Alice Vincent, Penguin news, November 10, 2020
See our other articles on grammar/punctuation