Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ka-pow. The exclamation point, its use and abuse, & how not to smile uncontrollably

Like it? 

At some point in the early 21st century, everyone began shouting in print. Like this! But also, disturbingly, LIKE THIS!!!!!

I have absolutely no statistics to back this up, and all the information I've acquired on the subject has been entirely anecdotal and subjectively and if I'm honest carelessly analyzed.  But somehow the exclamation point has become the most-used piece of punctuation in modern history -- and that, sir or madam, is fact.  I may not have things like data or "proof."  But every time I notice a exclamation point, there's one there.  Explain that to me, if you can.

Social media posts, text messages, e-mails, blog entries, online reviews, web comments: these are some of the many places where exclamation points are found in the wild, often seen with multiple friends and sometimes its wacky cousin the question mark or the digit 1.  Exclamation points are as common as bedbugs, equally as persistent, and they multiply with the same zest.  It wasn't always like this.  I remember getting letters from people (remember letters?) that weren't so noisy.  People used to use periods back then.

A scan of my Facebook news feed at 2:57 pm, 18 Feb 2011, reveals 87 uses of the exclamation point with several doubles and multiples, including an astonishing 5-stroke exclamatory spoodging: "!!!!!"  Studying my Twitter feed for the last 30 minutes, I counted 31 uses of the exclamation point, more than one per minute.  I even counted an interrobang, the cobbled-together "?!" that indicates confusion, bewilderment -- a piece of punctuation that retroactively adds spluttering to any sentence.  I was so excited I had to read a Raymond Carver short story to depress myself.

I admit I use exclamation points.  In the last 24 hours on Twitter, I busted out the exclamation point five times. The strict grammarian in me is slightly embarrassed.  It would argue that none of those was absolutely necessary.  Sometimes I even make a conscious effort to curb its use.  I find my left pinkie stretching for that key and I bite the inside of my cheeks to give myself a dose of negative reinforcement, deciding a period is more than sufficient punctuation to conclude the sentence satisfactorily, wonder if a period makes the sentence seem too stoic, decide I'm overthinking it, then avoid the situation by leaving off the punctuation entirely

Traditionally, I'd be right. But I'm wrong. Sort of. It depends.


Any good English usage textbook will tell you the exclamation point is a perfectly legitimate piece of punctuation to indicate surprise ("Holy shit!") or excitement ("What a great deal on Lysol disinfectant spray this week!") or an interjection ("Zounds!").  But as a tool of written speech they say it's a sign of immaturity.  I was always taught that the exclamation point is something kids use because they find it hard to contain their excitement, and a crutch that bad writers use because they don't trust the words to be powerful by themselves.

H.W. Fowler's The King's English declares that outside of a scant few applications, "the exclamation mark must not be used."  Clear enough for you?  He goes on: "When the exclamation mark is used after mere statements it deserves the name, by which it is sometimes called, mark of admiration; we feel that the writer is indeed lost in admiration of his own wit or impressiveness. But this use is mainly confined to lower-class authors." Fuck!

The Elements of Style has this to say about the exclamation point, and almost nothing else:

The Chicago Manual of Style is a skosh more lenient, but notes that you should use it "sparingly," and then quickly moves on to other matters:

You get the general idea: the books say don't use the exclamation point very much.  In fact, if you can get away with not using it at all, even better. It's the punctuation mark you keep locked up -- in case of emergency, break glass.  If you sprinkle them willy-nilly in your prose you start to look irrational and easily excitable and frankly kind of crass, like one of those people who doesn't know how to modulate the volume of your voice based on the ambient noise around you, so you end up yelling in quiet rooms, possibly with potato chip crumbs spraying from your mouth.

Call me Ishmael!  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!  Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society! I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of gray halflight where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves!  I tell ya, THIS is what I call fantastic bean dip!

Our keyboard layouts reflect that discouragement.  When manual typewriters were in common use, many manual typewriters didn't even bother including an exclamation point key. To make an exclamation point on my old Underwood manual, for example, you had to cobble one together by typing a period, hitting Back Space, then typing a single straight-shape quote mark over the period.  It was a multi-step process that required dedication and purpose.  You had to have a good reason to bother. Even on a more modern electric typewriter and on our current keyboard, notice how the exclamation point is tucked away above the 1, in the far upper-left corner where your pinkie has to grope for it. It's lumped in above the numbers with all the other weird symbols that barely get used like the ^ and the %. But the period, comma, and question mark are close to your right hand's fingertips. That's on purpose.


Years ago when I was a small boy both in size and age, I read a book called The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.  You know the book I mean.  It tells the supposedly "true" story of a family living in a haunted house, blah blah blah, paranormal shit.  To be perfectly honest, I don't remember a damn thing about the scary events of the book.  What I remember are the exclamation points.

The expository prose is littered with the bastards.  Not just the quotes. I mean the narrative.  Even at my young age, the audacity and incompetence bothered me -- and we're talking very early teen here, when a growing boy's thoughts should be turned to more fleshly matters than the choice of punctuation marks in a hack writer's piece-of-shit potboiler.  But the exclamations are that noticeable, and that horrifying. It's the main reason why, to this day, it remains easily the worst book I've ever read.

The author is a particular fan of ending sections or chapters with exclamation points, as if to say "Boo!"   

Every character tends to shout, as well, spewing mouthfuls of ill-considered exclamation points onto every page.  And P.S., every adverb you see in this above example is unnecessary.

Not only does Anson misuse the exclamation point often and extravagantly, he even gets his facts wrong: the odor of human excrement is always associated with a spicy lunch.

Anson nearly gets it right in this case -- "oh" is an interjection and could therefore qualify for the emergency exclamation mark use -- but then he unwisely follows it up with the adverb "meekly."  So Kathy yelled something meekly?  How is that possible?  More supernaturalism at work?

Anson uses hundreds, possibly thousands of exclamation points in the course of the book.  It's like he was paid per. Get out in the name of God indeed.

Anson isn't the only writer whose use of exclamation points is wrong and off-putting; he's just a case study in why grammar books advise against its use -- it can easily turn into abuse. What should be scary ends up dripping with a thick layer of cheese.  He refuses to take the more interesting and emotionally resonant route and rely on the context of the story and the language themselves to deliver the punch -- instead he drives home every scream and shout with an exclamatory ice-pick stab.  It's lazy.

The more respected literary writer Tom Wolfe is infamous/famous for his exclamation points in narrative as well.  He deploys them for slightly different purpose than Anson, of course. He's not trying to jump off the page and spook readers.

In Wolfe's hand they convey an exuberant, exasperated, excited tone. Funny how exclamation points imbue speech in ways that can also be described with an "ex-." 

It's quirky and has its charm. And yet even Wolfe isn't 100% successful in using the exclamation point.  A little bit of gonzo New Journalism rule-breaking is fine, but there's only so much exuberance, exasperation, and excitement you can read before those things begin to lose their meaning. Reading his prose, Wolfe's penchant for exclamation points establishes near-hysteria (or at least shouting) as the base level of tone. After a while, all you begin to hear is a white-noise hum like a loud television on the other side of a wall where every character's every moment of exuberantly exasperated excitement demands Your Immediate Attention RIGHT NOW -- WOO HOO! -- OVER HERE NO WAIT OVER HERE WHEEEEEEEEEE! 

Wolfe, finding the ends of sentences insufficient space to include exclamation points, also enjoys planting his !s in the middle of sentences.  Consider too that Wolfe writes exclusively with a typewriter, and note what I wrote earlier about keyboard layouts on typewriters. In the 9.5 sentences above, there are 6 exclamation points, 2 jammed into a sentence mid-stream.  It demonstrates what happens when too many sentences are mis-punctuated with exclamation points.  The subjective narrator in The Bonfire of the Vanities is breathless, tripping over his own speech, correcting and clarifying himself at an irrational volume. You read the book and picture a man red-faced and sweating through multiple handkerchiefs. Again with the potato chip crumbs.  It has the effect of giving the story a sheen of paranoia and melodrama that mirrors the plot, which could be nice, but at the expense of having it read as slightly cartoonish and noisy.  His exclamation marks are slightly demanding and needy. It's almost as if he predicted how we abuse exclamation marks today.

LOVE ME!!!!1! LOL.

We're not all novelists or professional writers.  Most people use their exclamation points in modern everyday writing: Facebook statuses, tweets, blog posts, e-mail, text messages. It's easy to see why.  In general, modern people don't talk much anymore.  We write things down and show them to each other.

The speech of a modern person is utterly disconnected from their human voice, face, and body.  We communicate via text.  I have friends online whose voices I've never heard. There are members of my own extended family I've never heard speak, but I've communicated with them via text. Other friends, I've never even seen their damn faces.  They're icons and nicknames and strings of written speech.  One guy I only recognize because he had a picture of a knee as his avatar.  I assume it was his.  It may have even been someone else's knee. If I met him in real life, I'd have to check his knees to make sure it's the right guy. The point is, even though I sometimes say I'm talking to my friends on Twitter, what I'm doing is more accurately described as reading my friends, and writing back to them -- and not even in long, context-heavy passages. Due to space and time constraints, we read and write in short non-linear blurts.  I'll ask a question on Twitter and get a curt answer from someone whose avatar is either a pumpkin or a doorknob 18 hours later, long past when I've forgotten what I asked. Human beings were not made to communicate this way naturally. It can be confusing as hell.

When a voice becomes disassociated from the person of its owner and even from the notion of context, it loses its tone, an extremely valuable component of any message.  A common language can itself be the barrier to communication.  In other words, people write me on Twitter or Facebook or via email, and sometimes I have no fucking clue what they mean. I know what the words mean. I just don't know what they mean. Know what I mean?

This is where punctuation comes in, the musical notation to written speech.  Our pieces of punctuation exist precisely to give tone to disconnected human speech. We pause at commas, and read "irony" when a word is set off by quote marks, and read computer-monotone-type-voice-thing when strings of words are connected by hyphens, and doesn't the voice in your head rise in pitch when you see a question mark? Yes. It. Does.  This is nothing new. It's just that we do so goddam much of it lately, because all we do is write to one another.

Exclamation points have become equally valuable.  Don't take away from this mind-bogglingly long blog post that I hate exclamation points and don't want people to use them. Go ahead! As I said: I use them myself. They're handy! I just try to use them judiciously so my tone doesn't come off badly and so they mean what I want them to mean.

I just find it curious and frankly delightful how -- despite the recommendations of sparing use in grammar books as a gauche tool used by crummy authors -- using the exclamation point in our current mode of text-talking has come to symbolize someone smiling and possibly even laughing. It's interesting. Even though in literature I still look askance at exclamation points, seeing them and using them in modern text-speak can be a necessity. Probably because I think a book is art and demands a higher standard than regular speech, and it comes with hundreds of pages of context and should be artfully written to rely on words to tell the story instead of punctuation gimmickry. Talking to someone is just giving someone information.

"Had a great day today." <-- Stone-faced. Possibly legit, possibly sarcastic. I'll need more information to decide. The tone and context are unclear.  I'll tentatively take this person at his word.

"Had a great day today!" <-- You can practically see the words smiling, can't you? This is a happy person.

That's the use of the exclamation point. The way we communicate, you're not there in person to show everyone personally that you're happy and excited. The exclamation point fixes that.

The abuse of the exclamation point is when everyone's musical notation seems to be fortissimo, and everything is exclaimed all the time.  And then you get Tom Wolfe Syndrome. The excited and exuberant tone becomes noise. Every sentence has an exclamation mark! It's just the way you end every sentence regardless of meaning! I'm sad! I'm happy! The long yellow fruit over there is a banana! I have a brown mug!  Sometimes I wonder about porcupines! Do you see the problem with the tone there? Everything's the same: near-hysterical. It's starting to freak me out.

That's not as bad as the multiple exclamation point, which scare me.  Another check of my Facebook page at 4:57 pm, 22 Feb 2011, reveals 70 !s with five "!!!s" and three "!!!!s." The tone of the punctuation reveals that everyone is extremely happy all the time, and you know goddam well that's not true. I'd guess this kind of exclamation point abuse occurs because of all the competition for people's attention.  Because the more exclamation points, the louder your text-speech is, right?  I'm communicating with hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter, all at once.  All of them are themselves communicating with hundreds of other people. All of us, the millions of people using social media, are sharing text, photos, videos, lolcats, news stories, audio files, like we're all standing on boxes at Speakers' Corner with infinite access to everyone and everything in the universe.  Someone's got to stand out.

And yet it can be a lonely place up there on the box.  It's cold.  Everyone is talking, but you don't know if anyone is listening. And if they are listening, are enough people listening? How can you get more people to listen? Is anyone listening now? Have you read this far? Hello! HAVE YOU READ THIS FAR?! I think this loneliness due to the chill and (even with punctuation) blankness of modern dehumanized text-communication leads some people who can't handle the coldness to punctuate in multiples and use ALL CAPS TO SCREAM WILDLY INTO THE VOID IN THE HOPES THAT SOMEONE HEARS THEM AND LISTENS!!!! The exclamation point changes from a written signal that your voice is happy and your unseen face is smiling, and becomes a signal that you're smiling uncontrollably, as in you do not have control over the ability to fix your face. Just as the exclamation point signals a smile, a constant and persistent and unwavering smile signals creepiness. People who smile all the time under any circumstance freak me out -- as they should.  It's not natural. It's desperate and needy and shows a demand to be validated. You! Will! PAY ATTENTION! TO ME!!!!!

I don't know if that's true. Maybe people who like to use "!!!!!!!" just enjoy the look of it. But I know that's how it comes off to me.  If one ! conveys a smile to me, and every sentence ending in ! is a lot of shouting, !!!!! is a wild leer, with bared teeth and dribble down the chin, clinging onto my pants cuffs and begging for me to believe that you're a happy person and to give your thought some kind of creepy validation.  Hence the internet meme of "!!!!!!1!," with a digit 1 slipped in there to indicate the person typing was so unhinged that his finger slipped off Shift while he was mashing the keyboard -- again, possibly spewing potato chip crumbs at the time.

Maybe I'm cynical, but here's what I've found: Basically, most people only want to be the center of the universe.  Failing that, we'll take other people's attention.

Especially since we often don't speak to each other physically, people need to know: you can get that attention while using a sane tone of text-voice and without resorting to punctuation abuse. Trust words. The English language is a beautiful thing, infinitely variable and effective. The exclamation point is a means to flavor it. It's not the whole meal.

Thanks for your attention!

lulz :p


Come Follow Me said...

Dan. Wow. I can only wish that I could have such big ideas about something so small. LOVE YOUR BLOG. (That's me avoiding these: !!!!!) I wish you would blog about smiley faces. I hate them.

kristen said...

I agree that we need to use our "indoor voices" a little more.
But sometimes I just get so excited and feel like I need to PUNCTUATE! OVER punctuate!!!

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