As we gathered punctuation favorites from a range of our favorite writers, novelists, and word-knowledgable people, we ran into a cold, hard fact. Some punctuation marks were hated, perhaps none more vehemently than the exclamation point. It was a mark hated most of all, among those we spoke to, by Grantland staff writer Rembert Browne. Browne asked, "Am I allowed to write a note about why ! is the worst thing in the culture of the Western Hemisphere?" Given that earlier this year we declared the exclamation point as in many ways representative of an entire zeitgeist, even the mark of the year, we figured we had to give Browne's countering view some time in the sun. (One of our commenters has called the proliferation of that allegedly foul mark an "American issue" even as our own Rebecca Greenfield has tried to help us all cope and, for the love of God!, tone it down a little.) Herewith, on National Punctuation Day, Browne's plea for restraint in a time of great punctuation excesses:
Hate is a strong word, one unfortunately overused to describe things that should probably be labeled as simply dislike or despise. With that said, I would be lying if I described my feelings toward seeing an exclamation mark as loathe or not a fan of. The hate in my heart for the most misused, overly used piece of punctuation is very real, and I couldn't be prouder, seeing as that it might be the only thing I truly stand for.
In 10th grade, as a response to the most recent assignment of 5-paragraph personal essays answering the gem of a prompt, "talk about one important thing of your summer," my English teacher began the class with the single most important lesson I learned in high school: "From here on out, you only get seven exclamation marks in your life, so use them wisely." I was floored. At that point in my life, I had yet to deal with anything that long-term. This was my Aladdin/three wishes moment. I was nervous, but also excited.
Fast-forward to present day. Nine years have passed since this statement was made and I have 5 more exclamation marks left.* Is this directly in response to the wise words from my former teacher, the woman who essentially taught me how to write? In some ways yes, but in my adult, working-world years my refusal to use them (and true hatred of seeing them scattered about) comes from the unfortunate fact that they're used so lazily and carelessly, whenever something moderately good or bad happens. The point of punctuation once actually meant something, but due to the culture of using them as frequently as inhales and exhales, they've become the grammatical "boy who cried wolf." No one is actually as consistently excitable as their exclamation mark usage suggests, but there will come a time when a person is attempting to convey true, unadulterated joy ("She said yes!" or "It's a boy!" or "I won one of those raffles to have dinner with Barack and Michelle!") and to me, because of the person's unfortunate exclamation track record, it'll read the same as "I overslept so hard last night!!!!" or "Hey!" or simply "!!!!!!!!"
Having spoken to people who are chronic users (yes, I mean for this to sound like a drug habit, because you people are exclamation junkies), most admit that they know they overuse it, but in this world where so many conversations and relationships exist via typing, they feel it's the only way to come off as excited and grateful, especially when dealing in work settings. This is worrisome, because it's almost as if we've given up on attempting to construct sentences, with words, that convey true happiness and instead simply cop out with the exclamation mark. This is bad, people. Real bad.
It's not too late to start down the path of "seven exclamation marks." Yes, some of you are deep in the game, but your condition is not incurable. No one is a lost cause. As rapper turned method-actor Clifford "T.I." Harris stated in the film ATL, "I believe in you even when you're too stupid to believe in your damn self." Know that I'm here for you. I'm tired of fighting this battle alone and, above all else, I care.
Upon receipt of this rant we wrote back to Browne using no fewer than 7 exclamation points and a deep awareness of the fact that we are part of the problem and not the solution. We will do better. We will try. Even if it kills us. (!)
*Browne's two exclamation uses so far appeared in a mass email following his high school graduation and in a long email to his thesis advisor, he told us, after he found he was graduating because she'd passed him. Who will get the remaining marks? "I think my first kid will get one (if there are additional, probably not), wedding maybe, and then who knows," he says. "Lottery? Maybe paying off school loans gets two? Who knows, I've got like 100 more years and only 5 more. Got to pace myself."
Inset via Flickr/Tom Rolfe.