Do you use exclamation marks? Often? Maybe too often??!!!
Some readers HATE exclamation marks
Exclamation marks used to be all the rage. Once.
But tastes change and, nowadays, some readers count exclamation marks and scream abuse on all the social media platforms if they think an author has used too many. Quite a few of my clients — including bestselling authors — have suffered at the hands of the exclamation mark police. And many have sworn, as a result, never to use an exclamation mark again.
How exclamation marks used to be
Once upon a time, an exclamation mark was regularly used to signify that dialogue was spoken with a little heat. When you open a classic text, you may be surprised by how often the author uses exclamation marks. My shorthand for them is shrieks. That’s because, when I was at school — back in the Dark Ages, children — my maths teacher didn’t say “factorial 6” when he was writing 6! on the board; he’d say “6 shriek”.
And, actually, shriek is not a bad name for what exclamation marks do.
Heyer scattered shrieks like an enthusiastic waiter with a pepper pot
I certainly didn’t have to look far to find one with this shriek count.
“Believe me, I did not intend you to undergo such hardship when I begged you to take up your residence here.”
“No! It quite spoils the tranquillity of my sojourn here!” she countered. “When all has been so agreeable until now!”
He smiled, but only said: “I trust your rest was undisturbed last night?”
“No such thing! Your brother’s odious dog scratched so vigorously at my door that I was obliged to get up out of my bed to let him in!”
“He must have taken a marked fancy to you, ma’am,” he said politely.
“He had a marked fancy for the ham-bone he had laid under my bed!” she retorted.
He laughed. “Well, that is a great deal too bad, certainly, but never mind! I am relieving you of both him and my graceless brother.”
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed quickly. “No, pray, do not, sir! He is an excellent watch-dog, and gives me the greatest feeling of security! Only fancy! he would not allow the baker to come within fifty yards of the house!” (The Reluctant Widow, chapter 12)
Half a page of Heyer text containing, I reckon, 12 exclamation marks. You probably noticed, too, that every single thing the heroine says has an exclamation mark at the end of it.
Did they start jumping off the page at you? And pulling you out of the story? Clearly, in Heyer’s day, they didn’t. But now, they definitely do, for many, many readers. So it’s wise to be careful.
Exclamation Mark Gospel according to Fowler
Fowler’s Modern English Usage — all writers have a well-thumbed copy, don’t they? — is pretty forthright on exclamation marks.
Except in poetry, the exclamation mark (!) should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.
Ouch! Are you listening, Ms Heyer? (No doubt she’d argue that she used exclamation marks mainly in dialogue, rarely in exposition. But still, five in that last short paragraph is a lot.)
So that’s a NO, then, from Modern English Usage. Though Fowler does allow a few exceptions, including:
- sentences introduced by How or What — such as How awful!
- alarm calls — like Help!
- commands — like Stand still!
- shouts — like Algernon!
Pedantique-Ryter’s tips on exclamation marks?
When you’ve finished your manuscript, do Search/Replace All for shrieks, replacing exclamation mark with exclamation mark. Once the program has finished its work, it will tell you how many exclamation marks it found and replaced. Look hard at that number. Ask yourself: what’s the average per page/per chapter? is it too many? will the shriek police be after me?
And never use more than one exclamation mark !!!! or a combination of shrieks and question marks ??!!! as I did in the first line of this post. It will simply mark you out for the reject pile.
You have been warned !!!!
Thank you 😉