In the latest issue of Intelligent Life magazine published by the Economist Group, six writers including Julian Barnes, Claire Messud, and Ali Smith discuss their favourite punctuation marks. We have addressed the topic of punctuation in a number of our posts in the past. The Oxford comma, the possessive apostrophe, and misused dashes all evoke a great amount of criticism. Julian Barnes reminds us in the aforementioned article of another misused and abused punctuation mark, the exclamation mark. Barnes writes:
‘Some of My Best Friends litter their e-mails with “!!!!!!!!”, like lines of poplars by French canals. I’ve even been caught using a few of them in a row myself. And is there anything more depressing than the hand-drawn version, in which the outline of a cigar sits perkily atop a small circle’.
Many usage guides and authors advise against the excessive use of the exclamation mark. The American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard stated in his 10 rules of good writing:
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Some linguists, however, attribute the overwhelming use of exclamation marks to the changing nature of written language, which is (largely due to computer mediated communication) becoming more conversational.
We might be witnessing language change that is affecting punctuation. Instead of signalling strong feelings or a forceful way of speaking, the exclamation marks are now mere indicators of excitement or positive disposition (Sure, let’s have coffee!, See you later :)!). From the number of articles lately addressing this issue, it seems that the language pedants are not calmly observing the change.
See the results of the Intelligent Life’s survey on favourite punctuation marks here.