Please stop screaming at me

The dog barked at the postie!!!!!

See what I did there?  I took a perfectly ordinary, unremarkable sentence and made it really exciting by adding a row of exclamation marks.

Well, maybe not really exciting.  In fact, not even a little bit exciting.  Dogs bark at posties every day.  And the addition of a row of exclamation marks doesn’t change that.

Until about 35 years ago, typewriters – the forerunners to computer keyboards, for those who weren’t around in those days – didn’t have a separate key for the exclamation mark.  If you wanted to type an exclamation mark, you had to first type a full stop (or a period, if you were in North America), carefully backspace, and then type an apostrophe above it.  Frankly, it was all a bit of a palaver.  And I’m sure that it encouraged writers to think a little more carefully about whether the exclamation mark was really necessary.  Was it really going to add anything to the communication?  Or was it just going to be a slightly distracting ornament at the end of the sentence?

These days, of course, adding an exclamation mark – or five – is as easy as slipping in a capital letter.  And, yes, there are times when an exclamation mark can be useful.  But, most of the time, it still doesn’t add anything useful to the communication.  Most of the time it just gets in the way.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage suggests that ‘excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.’

Among editors of a certain age, exclamation marks are sometimes known as screamers.  I remember one editor who, whenever he received a piece of copy with exclamation marks used ill-advisedly, would return the copy to the writer with a hand-written note saying: ‘I will be happy to consider this piece when you stop screaming at me.’

A not-unreasonable offer.

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