Writing Woes: The Losing Side of a Particular Punctuation Point

My eyes caught an article online the other day that included this sentence: “Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

My first reaction was, “damn, so it’s come to that.” I know many people whose ardor toward their preferred rules of grammar and usage is consummate. But it’s hard to believe such passions would end so tragically. Only upon reading further did I realize I was hoodwinked again by a satirical piece from The Onion. Even so, isn’t there truth behind so much humor?

Which brings me to a usage debate that, as a traditionalist, I appear to be on the losing end of: the cascading use of the exclamation point, that vertical line-dot punctuation mark that dates back to 14th-century Italy when no doubt the poet who claims to have invented it could not quite find sufficient words to express the heights of his fervent exclamation in verse alone. Must have had his heart broken.

I had a poetry professor in college who claimed that Robert Frost once said that when he got his literary license, it gave him permission to use the word “beautiful” three times throughout his career as a poet, and that he hadn’t yet found the need to use it even once. (Frost may have told my professor that personally because I could find no such quote upon searching the web. Then again, as with so many perceived college memories, I could just be remembering it wrong.)

No matter. I had always approached my use of the exclamation point in much the same way, to use it sparingly and on occasions where bolding, italicizing or CAPITALIZING words or phrases did not quite do the trick. F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly said that using an exclamation point is akin to laughing at your own jokes, and it was in that spirit that I have always reserved its use with restrained circumspection. And I honestly can’t recall ever using one in any news release, op-ed or article I’ve written over the past 40 years.

And then came the internet.

Or should I say, and then came the internet!

Electronic communications – emails and messaging and texting – apparently rewrote the rules on the exclamation point, just as it did when it comes to writing complete sentences, or complete words for that matter, not to mention other rules of grammar. If we don’t have time to type out a full thought, it’s little wonder why we can’t summon the effort to find the right intensity in our words alone.

But here’s the thing – I’m not trying to be some grammar Puritan about the exclamation point, although I am advocating for some prudent restraint. Communications via email and texting is most often devoid of tone and intention (hence the rise of the emoji). I confess to misreading on more than one occasion incoming emails, wondering if the sender is being sincere or sarcastic. Consider the distinction between “thank you” and “thank you!” Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve interpreted the latter as either being enthusiastically appreciate or not grateful at all, as in “don’t do me any favors!”

When asked what advice he’d give to young people starting out in the advertising business, the late Mike Hughes of The Martin Agency said, “never hit Reply All in emails.” Such wisdom from a great man. My own advice is to young communications professionals is not to never use exclamation points, but to simply be aware of the ambiguity and unintended interpretations they can bring.

If you don’t believe me, ask Elaine Benes, whose experience with exclamation points can be a lesson for us all.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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