Reclamation of the Exclamation Mark

*scene opens on Sam reclining in an oversized red armchair in the middle of a library, wearing a brocade smoking jacket and swirling a glass of scotch with one hand*

Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there, galleons. I mean, sure, technically I never see you there, as my stalking abilities are sadly lacking in the realm of teleportation… As an aside, I don’t think I’ve shared with you lot my new irrational fear- that, if teleportation ever becomes a reality, I’m going to get teleported while holding hands with someone and our hands will be permanently fused together.

I know. Silly, right? I don’t hold hands.

But now I’m just being a dork and getting entirely off topic. Also, I just shattered the super classy and cliche image I’d originally set in your mind. Balls.

Anyway, I’m here today, not just because I’m almost always here to talk about something, but because I’ve got a bug up my ass (christ, now that’s a truly terrifying/disgusting mental image) over something. And, frankly, I feel it’s worth ranting about.

Meet the exclamation mark:

!

Oh, you’ve met? Good to hear. That means you should be familiar with how to use this particular tool. I say should because it seems that 99% of the populous has forgotten the importance of the exclamation mark. They are whoring it out on all their sentences, dropping three or more at a time in a redundant display of adolescent fervor for something that makes them “LOL”. Probably a photo of a cat in a compromising position, captioned with something pop-culturally referential and riddled with misspellings.

Ah, memes.

Regardless, as a member of one of the first generations to be raised to suckle at the teat of the almighty Mother Internet, I have watched with morbid fascination as our language has been hacked, butchered, and desecrated for the world (and future generations) to see and emulate. It sends a bolt of fear through my spine- not just because of the slight Orwellian vibe to the whole thing, but because I am a logophile at heart. But it extends beyond just words and into the realm of grammar, the framework that language is built upon. A framework that is riddled with rot and rust.

In a world hell-bent on digitizing most forms of communication (a view that I’m not wholly opposed to, though nothing beats a face-to-face conversation with a friend or lover), we are having to transmute old grammatical standbys into a new system keyed toward the evolution of old forms of communication. As email replaces letters, Facebook/Twitter replaces postcards, texting replaces calls, we find ourselves adjusting to a new world, our words pouring down paths not previously planned for them.

It was only a matter of time before we needed some form of grammatical stylebook for the interwebs. Billed as the Strunk and White of internet grammar texts, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe’s Send: The Essential Guide to Email and Home seems to be the place to go to settle internet communication disputes. I imagined it as an oasis of reason, a place to send these teenage terrorists who drop exclamation points like curses on a dock.

I was sorely mistaken.

According to Shipley and Schwalbe’s little text, the exclamation point should be used with near-reckless abandon in emails (including, oh-horror-of-horrors, professional emails). “‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they write. “‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.”

I’m sorry… can we get a flag on the play here?

Thank you, Internet.

The exclamation point is not, contrary to popular belief, the be-all, end-all method of showing emphasis/pleasure/excitement/anger in writing. Even on the internet, this can be done in a wide variety of fashions, from subtleties in construction and style to the more flagrant and pointed emphasis of a simple change in the style of the typeface on a single word or phrase.

Remember Strunk and White? They’ve been telling us how to use an exclamation point for years: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. ‘It was a wonderful show!’ should be, ‘It was a wonderful show.’ ”

The exclamation point is akin to the English word love. Both are supposed to be used in only the rarest of situations. As Elmore Leonard said about the exclamation mark, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” The exclamation point is a thing of power. It denotes, not just emphasis on a particular word, but on the entire emotion the statement evokes. It helps to convey the idea of shouting. It punctuates exquisite pleasure.

It does not belong at the end of, “I love broccoli!” It is not a slutty punctuation mark by nature, galleons. The exclamation mark does not wake up in the morning and hope to tap the ass of every sentence it passes. No. The exclamation mark is a discerning creature. It wants nothing more than the best. It wants true passion and fire. It wants to be part of that, to help convey it to the world.

It does not want to end up sandwiched among clones of itself at the end of some whiny girl’s Facebook post to her boyfriend:

O..M…Geee…I think I am going to post on your wall continuously until I see you!!!! I am so excited!!!! This may get old for other people to see me posting on your wall, but oh well. I know it will make you smile! :)…I SO CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU!!!!!

Yes, that’s real. I stalked my brother’s profile to find a gem his girlfriend left him. Not that it was difficult… their only communication with one another seems to be these maudlin exclamations (I remain unconvinced that two people who speak this way to one another can share any form of real and intimate connection beyond the genitals, but hey, what the fuck do I know?).

This is a gross misuse of the power of the exclamation point. This is wrong.

There is argument, in these days of dull internet communication, that the exclamation point is needed in greater force to give the color of wonderment to our communiques. Bah, I say. That is like saying, “Well, I’ve been eating very healthy lately, but I find the taste lacking, so I’m going to eat more chocolate to make up for it.” Nonsensical, no?

I think the problem of listless messages lies less in the notion that digital communication saps our words of their vitality (please, go read a good novel and then tell me that black-and-white print lacks passion) and more in the idea that our society has become cripplingly lazy with the spread of digital communication. Sending missives used to require more effort than they do today. It used to take longer to reach the recipient. As it would be days before the message would be read, we thought harder about what we wanted to say. We selected the right words, not just the convenient ones. We ensured that we really meant what we were saying.

Love letters were written, not on a whim, but with intent and purpose. A text reading, “i luv u babe” carries significantly less emotional weight than a letter detailing the overpowering desire a person holds for another, the winding paragraphs unlocking intimate chambers of the lover’s heart. Business memos were thought out before sent. Workers ensured what they said was necessary and appropriate, as there was such a measure of finality in the delivered letter (whereas, in email, where you can send a follow-up that fixes an error… or bribe the bloke in IT to delete a poorly worded memo before the boss can read it).

We zip off a simple, one-line response to questions instead of really thinking about them and giving an intelligent response. We value speed over content, quantity over quality (I feel this has led to a disturbing trend among young people in love where, as they are constantly connected digitally, they need to know one another’s whereabouts to a greater extent than ever before, undermining the foundation of trust that is so essential to relationships).

Instead of peppering our messages with the poor, abused exclamation mark, we should be devoting a greater amount of time to selecting the proper words, to formulating the right sentences, to thinking about our messages before we send them. We should be using all the tools at our disposal to convey meaning and subtleties, not just relying on the easy crutch of the exclamation mark.

The exclamation mark is special. It denotes something of truly significant emphasis. Overusing it undermines its power. Remember, when everything is emphasized, nothing is. If we wish to regain that sense of wonderment the exclamation mark is supposed to invoke in us, we need to stop whoring it out. We cheapen ourselves and our language with our laziness and disregard for the immense possibilities our gift of language opens us up to.

***

And now, for a final aside:

While playing ME2 this past week, I noticed one of the characters begins to affectionately refer to my character as “siha” if she shows any interest in establishing a relationship with him. This word, this siha, has been driving me crazy. Googling it gave me no answers beyond what the game provides.

But I knew it sounded familiar. And I couldn’t place it. It kept popping into my head at the oddest moments, causing me no undue amount of frustration as I tried to attack the problem from all sorts of angles, using every trick in my mind to find the link between that damned word and whatever lurked in the corner of my memory.

Then, in one of those coincidences that never quite feel like coincidences (The Drain, if you will), I picked up Dune Messiah today after work. Just a few pages in, Paul refers to Chani by his name for her- sihaya.

And that’s why the term siha felt so familiar- it was remarkably similar to an endearment I’d already encountered.

Anyway, they are both very pretty terms of endearment. And I’m glad the mystery is solved.

4 responses to “Reclamation of the Exclamation Mark

  1. I am simultaneously flattered by your comment and terribly offended by the fact that you seem to have flagrantly ignored the purpose of this post.

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