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word nerd: e is for exclamation point!

Written by Rebecca Christian

If there's anything cozier than a shared grammatical grudge, I don't know what it is. So if you think exclamation point abuse should be a misdemeanor, come sit here by me. Unlike the elegantly leggy semicolon and the dashing dash, the exclamation point is the hysterical hillbilly cousin of the punctuation family, always turning up overdressed and a little tipsy. Using more than one exclamation point is the adult equivalent of the preteen dotting of  an "I" with a heart. Here at Trad Home, we use an exclamation point in our regular feature "Inspire Me!", and I grudgingly admit it's justified because the title is, after all, a rather energetic command, like the phantom of the opera's "Sing for me!" to the fair Christine. But it still makes me a little grumpy.

I've seen the comment that using an exclamation point "is like laughing at your own joke" attributed to both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain, but either way it's good. Wonder what those two gents  would make of today's ubiquitous emailspeak,

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"LOL!!!!" That's not just laughing at your own joke but heehawing, whether you take LOL to mean "laughing out loud" or "lots of laughs."

The stuffy Chicago Manual of Style explains use of the exclamation point thusly: "An exclamation point is used to mark an outcry or an emphatic or ironical comment. In order not to detract from its effectiveness, however, the author should use it sparingly." The exclamation point can be used in place of a question mark when the question is somewhat rhetorical, as in "How could you be so insensitive!" Sometimes people create an unholy marriage of the two to deliver a double whammy: "How could you be so insensitive?!"

The exclamation point epidemic, much like the obesity epidemic, can be solved by restraint. Author Elmore Leonard's prescription is, "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." That's about 250 typewritten pages. You'll note his novel isn't "Get Shorty!" but "Get Shorty." The more laconic air of the second example adds to the mood of playful menace. Nor did Herman Melville begin Moby-Dick with "Call me Ishmael!", but "Call me Ishmael." In any case, to my eternal shame, I am the only English minor in North America who could never get past the first chapter.

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Perhaps the best wisdom about exclamation points comes from the French singer who, like Cher or Madonna, went by only one name: Mistinguett. It was she who famously said, "A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. That's basic spelling that every woman ought to know."

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If you want to get picky about it—and I don't—it's not really basic spelling but basic punctuation. Who cares when it's such a good quote?!

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