02 May 2009


This is all so true. I'll resist putting an exclamation point at the end of that statement, for reasons that will be immediately apparent on reading the article below. And my beloved ellipsis, used to "confer gravitas on banal thoughts". . . . Again, I'm guilty as charged.


The joy of exclamation marks!

Exclamation marks used to be frowned upon. Now look what's happened! We use them all the time! Hurrah!!! But what is it about the age of email that gets people so over-excited?


There is a town of 1,471 happy souls in Quebec called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!. The second "Ha!", amazingly, is part of the town's name, not my commentary on the first "Ha!". Unlike, for example, the Devon town of Westward Ho! Ho! There, the second "Ho!" is mine. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is the only town in the world whose name has two exclamation marks. It will remain so until Wolverhampton is renamed Wolverhampton!! to highlight its funky new Black Country vibe, which, all things considered, seems unlikely.

Or maybe I'm wrong. After all, exclamation marks - those forms of punctuation derided by the funless and fastidious - are making a comeback, thanks to an internet renaissance that is bleeding over into every form of written communication. Once it was bad form to end a paragraph with an exclamation mark. Now it's borderline obligatory. Once it was enough to put a sign on your door: "Back in five minutes." Now, without the flourish of an exclamation mark, that sign lacks verve or at least zeitgeisty voguishness. Go figure!

More of that later. First, why did Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! get its enviable name? The Commission de Toponymie de Qu├ębec says that Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is so named because in olden times "le haha" in French meant an impasse, and that there was just such an unexpected obstacle blocking a waterway near the site of the future town. Eighteenth- and 19th-century canoeists paddling down the local river came across such a haha, then had to get out of their canoes and take a vexing 80km detour. Hence the town's name.

But if the commission's explanation is right, then surely the town should have been called Saint-Louis-du-Haha. But it isn't. What happened? Someone went potty with the exclamation marks, throwing them around with gay abandon!!! The two exclamation marks serve as reminders of those happy days when we weren't so parsimonious with what Lynne Truss, in her book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, calls, "a screamer, a gasper, a startler or (sorry) a dog's cock". That was her "sorry" not mine.

Novelists (at least male ones) are apt to be mean-spirited about dog's cocks. "Cut out all those exclamation marks," wrote F Scott Fitzgerald. "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes." It isn't actually. When one German starts a letter to another with "Lieber Franz!" they are merely obeying cultural norms, not laughing at their own jokes. Nor is chess notation, which teems with exclamation marks, especially funny. No matter. Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half. In the ninth book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Eric, one of the characters insists that "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." In Maskerade, the 18th in the series, another character remarks: "And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads. That's because in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. They write, for instance, "'I'll see you at the conference' is a simple statement of fact. 'I'll see you at the conference!' lets your fellow conferee know that you're excited and pleased about the event ... 'Thanks!!!!'", they contend, "is way friendlier than 'Thanks'."

Shipley is comment editor of the New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books. Those of you thinking that grown men with serious jobs should be above such phrases as "way friendlier" should realise that in the 21st century, adult appropriation of infantilisms is de rigueur, innit? Today, no one reads or cares about Fowler's Modern English Usage, in which it is maintained: "Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational."

Shipley and Schwalbe argue that in the internet age, a dash of sensation is just what is needed. "Email is without affect," they write. "It has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be." Shipley and Schwalbe are merely offering a post-hoc justification of what already happens online. OMG!!! We like totally used exclamation marks before Shipley and Schalbe said it was OK!!!

Hold on a second. Why should email in particular be without affect? Weren't earlier forms of written correspondence - telegrams, say, or letters - equally so? There must be something else going on. Arguably, users of each form develop styles to suit the medium. Telegrams, for instance, were likely to be terse, if only for financial reasons. Thus, one day Victor Hugo sent a telegram to his publisher. He wanted to know how his new book was doing. His telegram read: "?"; the publisher's reply: "!". The exclamation mark, you see, meant Hugo's book was doing well. The publisher could have deployed sentences of Proustian length to explain the novel's success among the target demographic of 18- to 35-year-old Parisians, but he saved a few centimes by cutting to the chase.

It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that's what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at - ooh, I don't know - the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe. Which is enough to take the joie de vivre out of anyone's literary style. In the springs following the advent of the manual typewriter's exclamation marks, typed paeans to seasonal budding loveliness teemed with exclamation marks. Or at least I hypothesise that they did. I wasn't paying attention at the time.

But technological change is not the only reason for variations in the use of exclamations. Carol Waseleski's unexpectedly diverting paper, Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication, found that women used more exclamation marks than men. But why was this? Are women more excitable? Some theorists (notably D Rubin and K Greene in their paper Gender-Typical Style in Written Language) had argued that the exclamation mark was often a sign of excitability, and that "a high frequency of exclamation points can be regarded as sort of an orthographic intensifier signalling 'I really mean this!'" They also argued that this might convey the writer's lack of stature; that, in fact, a confident person (read: man) could "affirm their views by simply asserting them". Perhaps then the use of multiple exclamation marks is not simply a sign that someone is wearing underpants on their head, but of deeply unmasculine insecurity about expressing one's thoughts. Or maybe that's just my theory!

Waseleski found otherwise. She concluded that exclamation marks were not just marks of excitability but of friendliness, and suggested that one reason women use them more than men is because they were, as a gender, less likely to be socially inept, funless egotists - which isn't quite how she put it. Instead, she wrote: "The results point to the need to reconsider the negative labels that have often been associated with female communication styles, and to investigate [their use] as they relate to email and other forms of computer-mediated communication."

Let's have a go. Why are exclamation marks so big in the internet age? "I haven't noticed any great explosion of exclamation marks recently," says Truss, "but I do think people are generally trying to get expression into email - and exclamation marks are good for getting attention." One possibility is that one can read and send so much stuff that it becomes a less self-conscious medium. Hence those slackers who write everything in lower case, and those who lock their shift keys to FRANKLY ANNOYING EFFECT. Hence, too, perhaps, a free-and-easy way with exclamation marks.

But that's simplistic: there are thousands of emailers who are all-too-conscious - for instance, those who write for that harsh taskmaster, posterity, and weigh every orthographic mark with unwonted care.

We are all, as Marvin Gaye noted, sensitive people with such a lot to give - and some people give (unwittingly) too much of themselves in email correspondence and that gets on the nerves of tight-arse limeys such as me. But the opposite applies: sometimes email correspondents seem to be expressing friendliness when they are really not. Consider email kisses from strangers (as I did in an article). Were all those women who concluded their angry letters complaining about my articles with kisses really coming on to me? Sadly not. Instead, they were bending the knee to a cultural norm of email correspondence whereby friendliness is obligatory. I thought these women were rushing things; in reality they were treating me the same as they would any other correspondent. It's very confusing.

Shipley and Schwalbe are right when they say a sentence without exclamation marks is less friendly than one with at least two. When, though, did friendliness become the arbiter of orthographic etiquette? There is surely a point after which exclamation marks no longer express friendliness. In this post-literal time, exclamation marks become signs of sarcasm as witty correspondents rebel against their overuse. Hence: "I loved your last email! OMG did I LOVE it!!!!!!" The point is they didn't. They were being IRONIC.

The origin of the exclamation mark is uncertain. The first one appeared in print around 1400. The exclamation mark, it has been argued, derives from the Latin Io (which means joy). One day (we hypothesise) somebody wrote a joyful upbeat sentence and to clinch that sense, they concluded it by putting the second letter of Io under the first.

How lovely it would be if we could recapture that original, pre-ironic wonder that made writers slip the o under the I! And how lovely it would be if we named our towns with transforming marks of wonder just as some French Canadians did all those years ago. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! It just raises your spirits to read that lovely name, doesn't it? No? Well, it raises mine!

In and out of style: Punctuation past and present

The full stop

It stops, and it will never stop being useful. Often used for rhetorical effect to break up sentences into. Significant. Words. Or phrases. Ed McBain wrote: "Oh, boy. What a week." The 1906 edition of the King's English lamented "spot-plague", meaning the full stop has to do all the work. In the intervening period, the full stop. Has. Done more work. Than Edwardian lexicographers. Would have thought possible.


I love ellipses, which are also experiencing a revival online (so easy not to finish a thought but instead to lean on your full-stop key .... ), and I use them to seem cleverer. Ellipses confer gravitas on banal thoughts ...

The comma

Use wrongly and hilarity ensues. Thus: "Mr Douglas Hogg said that he had shot, himself, as a young boy." Take out the commas, and Hogg mutates into someone who takes himself out.

The semi-colon

Yay or nay? Literary types divide over this. In France, they have been arguing about it histrionically. Lynne Truss argues that "they are the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes". George Orwell once purged A Clergyman's Daughter of the semi-colons, arguing they were unnecessary.

The colon

Functional, utilitarian. Fowler said that, "the colon ... has acquired a special function, that of delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words". Dull, isn't it?

The question mark

Thanks to Australian uptalking, this, like the exclamation mark, is undergoing a renaissance? Now, it can be used at the end of any sentence? It makes everything you write read like Russell Crowe whining about the media? This, to be sure, is no advance? Or is it?

• This article was amended on Wednesday 29 April 2009. We referred to a German person starting a letter with the greeting 'Liebe Franz!" when we should have said 'Lieber Franz!'. This has been corrected.


  1. Trust an article on punctuation to get me excited! I just love the stuff! And,no, I'm not being ironic... It's true: there's something about e-mail that makes us use more exclamation marks and ellipsis than we normally would. Maybe because it's a medium that combines writing with the immediacy of the spoken word? It looks like writing but it's supposed to sound like informal speech?

  2. I agree. There's something comfortably chatty and familiar about messages littered with these suspect bits of punctuation.

    Don't you love the irreverence underlain by scholarship that is the hallmark of these Guardian articles? They're such a pleasure to read, not stuffy at all in their erudition.

    Do check out some of the reader comments that these pieces have generated. You have many kindred spirits out there.

  3. I've always rather liked the Spanish approach: fencing in questions and exclamations between paired punctuation marks so you can anticipate (and afterwards relect on) the tone or thrust of the sentence they enclose.

    I must write a blog entry for you two on the way English is used here in Zambia. Like the driving, it often dispenses with the rules, but still gets the job done somehow.