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. Still, 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 the humor?
As a traditionalist, I appear to be on the losing end of another grammar debate: the cascading use of the exclamation point. This pesky punctuation mark dates back to 14th-century Italy, when the poet who claims to have invented it could not quite find sufficient words to express the heights of his fervent exclamation. He must have had a broken heart.
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 college memories, I could just be remembering it wrong.)
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. In that spirit that I have always reserved its use, 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.
Then came the internet. Or should I say, 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. If we don’t have time to type out a full thought, it’s little wonder we can’t summon the effort to find the right intensity in our words alone.
Yet, here’s the thing: I’m not trying to be some grammar Puritan about the exclamation point, although I am advocating for prudent restraint. Communications via email and texting is commonly devoid of tone and inflection (thus giving rise to 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.” 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.
Josh Dare is co-founder of The Hodges Partnership. He regularly blogs at the agency’s Gong Blog, where this article first appeared.