Too Much Excitement
In a previous entry entitled “Don’t Stand for It,” we discussed the overuse of the standing ovation. (When I say “we discussed” I mean to say that I wrote—and you read, agreeing with me wholeheartedly. Yes, that’s more accurate.) The gist was this: Once reserved for only the rarest of performances, the standing ovation now follows virtually all of them, completely obliterating the gesture’s impact.
The same kind of irresponsibility has severely eroded the value of the exclamation mark, which is meant to indicate extraordinary sentiment—shock, joy, grief, immense gratitude, that sort of thing. We have, unfortunately, no method by which to measure degrees of such feelings, and there is, unfortunately, no official grammatical rule for how ardent a statement needs to be to merit the use of this special form of punctuation. If there were, we’d have a means more authoritative than common sense by which to condemn its bogus usage. Sadly, that is not the case. And so the decision depends (God help us) on the writer having a nuanced sense of what is called for in each circumstance. And nuance is an all-but-dead art.
And so, while I have no more than tradition-based opinion to support my gripe, I am damned sure that all who share my dedication to the proper use of the English language will agree: People are using far too many exclamation marks.
“And what’s wrong with that?” some oblivious boob may ask. The question makes me sigh. Where is one to begin?
The King James Bible, which contains accounts of winged angels proclaiming news from on high, heart-wrenching prayers from the very depths of despair, a man coming back from the dead, a sea divided in two, and even people hearing the very voice of God—this piece of writing is conservative in its use of exclamation marks. And it never exceeds one mark per instance, even with all those amazing things taking place. If God speaking to Moses from a burning bush doesn’t get an exclamation mark, perhaps a period is adequate after announcing your arrival at Starbucks to meet a friend.
Many of earth’s inhabitants currently walk around with portable mini-computers that can make phone calls, do research, display videos, play music, check the weather, provide directions, and more. And this remarkable technological achievement is now considered commonplace. We’re unlikely to see anyone post a photo of a smart phone with the caption “Look! A smart phone!” In fact, very little is exciting enough to merit an exclamation mark. And that’s the whole idea. Exclamations are supposed to be used sparingly, saved for special occasions, just like the standing ovation. Adding one to your Instagram story pronouncing someone’s new haircut “nice!” seems a bit extravagant.
The worst of it is that now, when people who understand the special value of exclamation marks correctly use periods in their communiques, they risk being perceived as cold, bored, or just plain foul-natured. And so, to avoid that risk, a text to your roommate Lionel asking him to pick up some milk must now read, “Hello, Lionel! I want to ask a favor! Can you pick up some milk on the way home?! Thanks!” (Of course, it’s unlikely that exclamation abusers would ever spell out words as I have, but I couldn’t bring myself to type out the kind of mulch that passes for English these days.) One feels exhausted just reading that brief, imaginary text. Must we now declare Lionel, favors, and milk thrilling to avoid sounding rude?
And how are we to punctuate when we really do want to communicate an unusual amount of passion? The news is not good: Such sentiments now require multiple exclamation marks, followed by a cartoon facial expression showing how we’re feeling. Anything less can come across as blasé.
And so, as is so often the case, the stupidity of some affects the experience of all. If your rich aunt Agatha emails to say she’s leaving you a million dollars and you respond with a mere, “Thank you, Aunt Agatha! That’s so generous of you!” she may think, “Gee, he doesn’t sound very grateful or enthusiastic. I think I’ll give the million dollars to Save the Snails instead.” And just like that, you’re out a million dollars, and all because people don’t know when to use exclamation marks and when to be content with periods.
You can’t tell me punctuation doesn’t change lives.