How The Exclamation Mark Went From :-O To ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

04/15/2015 08:16 am ET | Updated Mar 22, 2016

Image by Tiara Chiaramonte

A friend of mine who I occasionally Gchat with messaged me last night about a guy she’s been seeing on and off for over a year. The nature of their relationship is precarious because this guy is non-committal. While he seems to enjoy her company -- they spend Saturdays at bars and Sundays at brunch together -- he is not interested in a monogamous relationship with my friend. Of this guy, she chatted me, “I hate him!”

I did not take her proclamation as a literal expression of hatred. For that, she’d have used a period, which in addition to its other functions has taken on the role of notating earnest textual anger. Instead, I saw it as a facetious acknowledgement of her frustrations -- a shrug of sorts.

Months ago, her disparaging comments were declarative, but now that their relationship seemed to be settling into a permanent state of flux, her commentary acknowledged her powerlessness -- she even seemed amused. The sentence’s punctuation affixed to it a subtext: “oh well! What can you do!” A period would’ve suggested that her complaint was important and needed addressing. The exclamation mark added to it an air of lightness.

In her new book, The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits says of exclamation marks, “Once [they] were scary and loud; they made you jump. [...] They were the nun-chucks of punctuation. They were a bark, a scold, a gallows sentence. Not any longer. The exclamation point is lighthearted, even whimsical.”

This isn’t entirely true -- historically, the mark has been used for anything emphatic, be it silly or serious. As Stuart Jeffries notes in a piece for the Guardian, Victor Hugo and his publisher once communicated about the state of the author’s work-in-progress via telegram, and due to the restrictive medium relied solely on punctuation. Hugo’s note read simply, “?”. His publisher’s response was the most poignant form of enthusiasm: “!”.

Still, Julavits’s point that “!!!” now denotes many things unrelated to anger or sincerely impassioned emphasis holds up. “I’m so pissed!” is not nearly as effective as “I’m so pissed.” The period has usurped the role of transforming a sentiment into something weightier -- something more emphasized.

Which isn’t to say that exclamations are endangered. In fact, they’re cropping up everywhere, to the delight of some, and the dismay of others. In a piece proclaiming “the overuse of the exclamation mark,” journalist Christopher Muther expresses his irritation that the once-hefty shouting symbol has been transformed into a means of spreading cheer, zeal and general amusement. “Exclamation marks are no longer tough,” he laments. “They’ve been emasculated into sweet little blue birds delivering happy thoughts.”

Emasculated indeed. Analysis of gendered language usage from the late '70s onward indicates that women are much more likely to exclaim than men are. Mary Hiatt’s 1977 book The Way Women Write, which analyzed the grammar of literary texts in search of gendered trends, says women are more likely to use an exclamation mark four or more times in a 2,000 word block. This, Hiatt writes, is a mark of “excitability.” But, a 2012 study that sought to disprove her claim that the mark is merely emotive drew a different conclusion. By analyzing chat logs and divvying them up by gender, the study’s conductor found that 73 percent of exclamations were made by women -- and so were 70 percent of all “friendly” statements, i.e. “Thanks!”

When viewed in this light, the punctuation mark can be interpreted not as a yell or an interjection, but as a sort of textual smile -- a means of achieving conversational harmony. Deborah Tannen, a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Huffington Post: "[Exclamations] no longer necessarily show emphasis, because for many women, they are the most common, or neutral, way of ending sentences. Leaving them out indicates negative intentions, while including them simply shows an expected level of enthusiasm."

She adds that exclamation marks are "absolutely" used more by women, along with emojis and multiple letters, all of which "function the way facial expressions, intonation patterns, and voice quality function in speaking." It's unsurprising, then, that the burden of verbal harmony falls on women. If exclaiming creates an atmosphere of politeness and understanding, should we not all jump on the bandwagon?

Writer Anna Breslaw, known for her voicey blogs about sex and relationships, thinks so. “I love exclamation points,” she says. “How come they are not on the list of Serious Writer-approved punctuation? I think it’s [...] a short-sightedness about using punctuation as playfully or colorfully as you’d use actual words. Like anything other than a pretentious semi-colon or stark, cynical period is window dressing. But like [...] your Bret Easton Ellis phase should be over by now.”

It’s true that certain lauded male writers have long declared exclamations silly. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” And so what? Laughter helps people connect -- should language not do the same?

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