A Single Exclamation Point Is Like a Whump! with a Shovel

by Alan Eggleston

We have all been obligated by a client or higher-up who demanded something that didn’t make sense. It may have been an obsession that only made sense to them, perhaps an idea they simply couldn’t get out of their head, or it might have just been ignorance masquerading as expertise. It can take all of our ingenuity to talk them out of doing it to keep them from looking like a fool.

Misguided Marks

Let me use as my example the misguided overuse of the exclamation point. As a corporate writer, I occasionally had to meet with our VP of Communications, who would look approvingly at something I had written, then add as I would walk away, “Add lots of exclamation marks, for some extra excitement.” Many is the time I would see copy come back from Marketing sprinkled with exclamation marks, and to this day, I still see Web pages and emails with extra exclamation marks or – grammar gods forbid – multiple exclamation marks at the end of a tagline!!! Whither the embarrassment?

One day, I explained the overuse of exclamation points to an exuberant client this way:

Remember in the movie, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” when Harry and Marv finally cuff little Kevin into Central Park? Harry and Marv are covered in paint and stain and goop, when the bird lady throws a bucket of bird feed at them and the two baddies are attacked by a horde of pigeons? The attack of the pigeons is what a page full of exclamation points is like. It’s probably attention-getting, but it’s also overwhelming. You miss the point.

He nodded with a smile, and I followed up with:

Now remember in “Home Alone” (the original); after all that Harry and Marv had gone through, there were no horde of pigeons, just an old man with a snow shovel. When senior neighbor Marley discovered Harry and Marv in the flooded house, he whumped them with the shovel. The whump! with the shovel that knocked them out is like a single exclamation point on the page. You get the point.

See the difference? He nodded his head. We went with one “!”

Weak Sequels

Another way to look at multiple exclamation points on a page is movie sequels. Although there are certainly instances in which movie sequels are good (Home Alone 2), there are many instances in which movie sequences are not good (Home Alone 3, Home Alone 4, Home Alone 5). The problem with movie sequels as with too many exclamation points is that beyond the initial case, it gets harder and harder to sustain the drama and interest the more you use.

Editors aren’t just doers. We are also leaders, skilled artisans leading others in the use of language. It’s often our job to keep others out of trouble. Sometimes that comes in a discussion over exclamation points. Sometimes it is offered as an entry in the company style guide on maintaining tone and voice, to ensure the organization’s website is consistent with its publishing standards. Always it is based on knowledge and experience and a touch of talent – the reasons they hired us.

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4 thoughts on “A Single Exclamation Point Is Like a Whump! with a Shovel

  1. I hate exclamition marks. Used sparingly, they enhance copy and add punch. Sprinkled like salt on a portion of chips, they lose all impact. When I see my copy subbed with extra !’s everywhere, I could weep.

    • Thanks for commenting, Phil. I keep a general rule: Only one exclamation point (or mark) per page. I will break it for a demanding client but reluctantly, and I don’t break it for my own personal writing. Even then, an exclamation point must make sense. I believe I have been quite successful with my limits.

  2. Hi Alan – thanks for this reminder – it’s spot on. I occasionally wander into the weeds with exclamation points, and then find myself returning later to take them out. This is a classic case of “less is more.”

    • Hi Alison. Thanks for the comment. I have a self-imposed rule: One exclamation point per page, but it’s a hard rule to master. The “!” is such a mark of emotion that we as writers and editors get caught up in the feelings as we write that a “!” seems to tap. But I am the same – I over punctuate and then I have to go back and rescind marks when the intellectual (or editor) me finally takes over the emotional (or writer) me. Thank goodness for editors!

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