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
Here’s an example from Georgette Heyer. If you open any of her books at a page of dialogue, you’ll probably be struck by the number of exclamation marks she uses.
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 😉
Whenever I type an exclamation mark my finger hovers over the delete key until I’m certain that it’s called for.
If I came across that dialogue in a modern book I’d be expecting the chap to be getting ready to deal with a panic attack, or something worse.
Your approach sounds very sensible, my dear. Glad to hear it.
I love exclamation marks and use them far too frequently, although I do delete them later. I was warned against them as a very young person, though, by my dad, who was a proof reader in Fleet Street (and subsequently the company who printed secret government documents) when they had to take exams to achieve the exalted rank. The name for them in the trade then was “Screamer” so your maths teacher wasn’t far off! (Sorry.) I gave dad his Fowler one Christmas, and inherited it. It currently sits next to the Big Mac in the office along with the thesaurus, the dictionary (2) and the Oxford for Writers and Editors. And I still make gaffs. Sorry – far too rambling for a comment.
Your dear father’s advice was very wise. Of course, I knew that proof readers use the term “screamer” but I prefer the shorter “shriek”. Both convey the message, I’d say.
Rambling is acceptable here, dear gel. I’m sure you wouldn’t do it in your books. But here in comment corner, we can be rather more chatty. I, of course, am always pithy but as for Joanna and Sophie…
Suffice it to say that they can ramble for Britain, to gold medal standard.
The bane of my life. When I was starting out an editor sarcastically remarked that she supposed the plethora of exclamation marks meant it was supposed to be funny. Enter lifelong paranoia. I puts them in! I takes them out. I puts them in again! I takes them out again. I argue the toss for every one I keep and even then take them out whenever I edit. They are a plague on my life and I hate that woman with a passion. [Which sentence obviously deserves a shriek, but I’m not going to use one because I am gritting my teeth instead.]
That early editor of yours, Elizabeth, was clearly in need of my Constructive Communication course. Sadly, many editors need help to understand the importance of communicating with their authors in a positive way. Too many opt for the fleeting satisfaction of a clever-clever remark without considering the long-term harm it may do to their relationship with the author.
Thank you for sharing this example. I do hope that any editors reading about your experience will pause to consider how important this lesson is. (Details of my Constructive Communication course available on request.)
I guess I am either old fashioned or rebellious. I don’t mind exclamations marks, and I frequently use a group of them. (And also I am not a writer except for personal use, such as occasional blogs and responses such as this one.)
But how else do you indicate passion. In a fun exchange on Facebook recently, I was accused of doing house work. Almost anyone in a spoken conversation would have emphasized the denial, so I wrote “I wasn’t!!! …”; how else would you convey this in typing. The only other alternative I can think of would be ALL CAPS, which is MUCH worse! (See the overkill; and why I choose the exclamation point?)
And by the way, in the Heyer example the female is angry; and not unreasonably so. There’s no reason to read panic when, in context, you know that she is angry.
An excellent question, Sue. Interesting to get the reader’s perspective which has also emerged on Twitter (though I leave Joanna and Sophie to deal with Twitter and Facebook).
I agree that an exclamation mark was necessary to emphasise your impassioned denial. Three of them? I wouldn’t recommend that. I’d suggest using extra words to create emphasis, such as: “Of course I wasn’t!” or “No, I wasn’t!”
However, if multiple exclamation marks are the norm on Facebook, using just one might have little or no impact. In such informal chat, more than one might be essential. The question for authors would be how to convey the passion and informality in a manuscript for publication, since modern editors tend to hate shrieks.
Thank you for your response. I have had an additional thought/question: Are the editors actually requesting the authors to tone down passion in conversations? If so, it seems odd, since they wish to up it in bedroom action.
Another excellent question. Authors may correct me on this, but I’ve seen no suggestions that editors want to tone down passion in conversations. I think they do want that passion to be conveyed by means other than exclamation marks, though.
And that last comment may provoke a whole new discussion about adverbs, I fear.
Oscar Wilde said: ‘I was working on a poem all morning and took out a comma… In the afternoon … well, I put it back again.’ I tend to do the same with exclamation marks. I put them in enthusiastically one day but the next day, in the cold light of morning, I take them out again.
It sounds as though you are very wise, Elizabeth. Exactly as I would have expected from the co-author of the excellent Getting the Point of course.