October 17, 2017

The disappearing !  Aren’t you worried?

By John Guy LaPlante

Don’t recognize it?  It’s ! –our exclamation mark. If you’re not worried, I am! It seems as dead as the dodo.

My memory is pretty good. I believe nobody has ever sent me an email and used an exclamation mark in it.  They might be saying, “Happy Birthday, John,” or “Sorry about your terrible fall.” No exclamation mark. Those are exclamations. So an ! is essential!

Haven’t you experienced the same thing? I’ll bet you have.

The big question is, why is our ! so imperiled?

Back in grammar school, excuse me, the elementary school so-called now, we learned we have 12 punctuation marks.  Well, I did. They are the period (.), comma (,) question mark (?), exclamation mark (!), colon (:), semi-colon (;), apostrophe (‘), quotation mark (“), the hyphen (-), the dash (–) , parentheses (which you’ve seen me use 10 times here), and brackets [ ].

In our newspapers and magazines, you never see an exclamation any more. It’s absolutely taboo. A headline will say, “Mother Kills Her Six Children.”  No exclamation mark! That’s absurd! One exception—our awful supermarket tabloids! They sock us with them.

And of the 12, the exclamation mark is one of the four biggies.

Online I just found a perfect explanation showing why they’re important and how they’re used. It’s dramatic! It’s so good that I’m reproducing it here right now. Hope I’m not infringing on a copyright!

First, its clever but unfortunately unknown author shows us several lines of English. With zero punctuation marks.  And asks us if we make sense out of it.  Here’s it is — I’m putting it in italic for clarity.

perhaps you dont always need to use commas periods colons etc to make sentences clear when i am in a hurry tired cold lazy or angry i sometimes leave out punctuation marks grammar is stupid i can write without it and dont need it my uncle Harry once said he was not very clever and i never understood a word he wrote to me i think ill learn some punctuation not too much enough to write to Uncle Harry he needs some help

Do you make sense out of it? Of course not. Well, only after a struggle! Now the author puts in the punctuation, and does so properly. Now take a look:

Perhaps you don’t always need to use commas, periods, colons etc. to make sentences clear. When I am in a hurry, tired, cold, lazy, or angry I sometimes leave out punctuation marks. “Grammar is stupid! I can write without it and don’t need it,” my uncle Harry once said. He was not very clever, and I never understood a word he wrote to me. I think I’ll learn some punctuation – not too much, enough to write to Uncle Harry. He needs some help!

Notice the incredible improvement? Those little marks are essential! I called this a perfect example. Not so. Only half of the available marks are used. It should have included every one of them. And a couple are used wrong, well, in my opinion.

Case closed!

Whoever first used those marks did so to make anything read on paper sound as close as possible to how they would sound if spoken.

When anyone speaks, they utter something and stop. That’s why on paper they’d put in a period. When they ask us anything, by their tone of voice we instinctively know it’s a question.  So on paper they’d include a question mark. If they yell something good or bad, or curse, or warn us about something, we know they’re exclamations. And on paper they’d include the marks invented to show that.

That’s for the main four punctuation marks. To make written messages crystal clear, the other eight were introduced, one by one. They have subsidiary roles, albeit consequential.

I for one would love to read the history of our punctuation marks. The inventor of each one. What year. And so on. Fascinating. I’m not sure a history exists. But hey,  one does exist! I went looking and found David Crystal’s wonderful  Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. I quote him here about the exclamation mark. This is just one highlight.

Here’s a short selection of contexts where the [exclamation] mark would be routinely used these days, says he.

interjections – Oh!
expletives – Damn!
greetings – Happy Xmas!
calls – Johnny!
commands – Stop!
expressions of surprise – What a mess!
emphatic statements – I want to see you now!
attention-getters – Listen carefully!
loud speech in dialogue – I’m in the garden!
ironic comments – He paid, for a change! or . . . for a change (!)
strong mental attitudes – ‘Hardly!’ he thought

A complete list of situations would be impossibly long, as it would need to identify all the emotions that could motivate the use of the mark.”

Thank you, Mr. Crystal!

Well, I  said “Case closed!” Not quite.

What is still open is why, yes, why, the exclamation mark seems to have gone out of fashion. It seems so contrary to the intent of whoever’s the writer. Maybe the writer is a boring, cold-blooded, impassionate person.  Though I’ll bet that’s not so. I think it’s the fear of appearing emotional, or not wanting to run against the tide. Or plain lack of appreciation, meaning ignorance.

In our good newspapers, there’s a different reason. I believe they do so to maintain the “objectivity” that is the hallowed and important prime principle that backs up all their reporting. Which is totally lacking in many other countries where the press is just an arm of the ruling government. China. Russia. And so on.

I mentioned in their reporting.  But it’s different on their editorial page. That’s where they’re telling us their official, on-the-record opinion. True also of their columnists and op-ed writers and letter writers. It’s wrong here for them not to show their strong feelings by abstaining from the exclamation mark! They’re delinquent! That ! would add the needed emphasis!

I use exclamation marks a lot, and I’m sure you’ve noticed.  Though far more than usual in this piece just to dramatize my message. But hey, I’ve even been known to use two, yes, two !! together. Such as, “About this matter, I am damned, in fact, gxd-dammed upset!!”  See?

I can even imagine a situation when I might use three. Such as four years from now, “Trump gets re-elected!!!” See? And that wouldn’t be to show my amazement. No, no!  To show my utter shock!!! God forbid that does happen in 2020!

I’ve even been known to use two different punctuation marks together. Such as, “What did you think of that terrific editorial?!”  See? I’m sure you can tell I intend it as a combination question and exclamation.

Enough said!

But do you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m too passionate and should calm down? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m fighting a losing battle? Please let me know!

If you agree with me, well, use the  ! more. Please, please!!