I recently received a note expressing concern over my “overuse” of exclamation points: “You might want to reconsider your tendency to overuse exclamation points.” Overuse? Overly emphatic? Me? OK. Fair enough. Still, I requested an explanation. I wasn’t offended by the feedback. I was just curious about the commentary. I sensed a big discussion behind the advice. Alas, I received no reply.
So I began to think about the meaning of my reader’s feedback. I “might” want to reconsider my overuse of exclamation points? Was this a complaint? A soft recommendation? Sarcastic criticism?
At the end of the day, the use of exclamation points is about communicating tone. And tone is largely a matter of taste—as in “there is no accounting for…”
Still, tone is hard to determine in online communication. But then that’s the whole point: communicating tone in digital media requires content writers rethink the traditional rules and tools of style – including the use punctuation to project meaning and tone. Effective brand writing across digital channels is a complex issue, one that requires more than placing a ban on multiple exclamation points. Here are some issues to consider.
So why might a reader complain about my excessive use of exclamation points? I can’t know for sure. But I can venture quite a few possible answers. I’ve had a lot of practice parsing out the potential meanings behind writing (I even got a fancy degree in it!). So here’s one possible problem with my use of exclamation points: it risks undermining my otherwise tough-guy “manly” online persona. Sound crazy? Let me explain.
Exclamation points are often considered less than “masculine.” I take my cue here from Ernest Hemingway, the King of tough guy lit. Hemingway, as indicated in the above quote, is known for his highly “economic” writing style, a very understated voice characterized by the minimal use of words. Needless to say, Hemingway would very likely have bristled at all my “overuse” of exclamation points. In fact, he’d probably have beaten me up, just to try and break me of the habit. That’s the kind of guy Hemingway was. Still, the man could write!
So what does Hemingway’s style have to do with manliness and exclamation points? Hemingway’s understated voice was more than a style; his use of language functioned as an extension of a kind of heroic moral code–a sense of how one should live. And many have suggested (I’m summarizing in general here) that this “code” also tends to link verbal understatement with a kind of masculine heroism. Hemingway’s heroic tough guys arguably represent the masculine ideal of the “strong silent type”: A vision of “manliness” characterized by stoic self-control over one’s emotions–including the verbal expression of emotion. Simply put, an understated, non-emotional tone suggests tough-guy self-control. Stop whining. Act like a man. That kind of thing. Needless to say, the stereotype implies some very problematic and misguided gender stereotypes for both men and women.
Yet the idea certainly does not end with Hemingway. The author’s “manly” writing style speaks to some deeply embedded cultural views regarding the meaning of tone. These views influence unspoken norms and perceptions regarding how one “should” and “should not” sound in writing–views that translate into ideas regarding “proper” use punctuation. These attitudes in turn translate into very real practices. For instance, a 2012 study in The Journal of Mediated Communication revealed that 73% of exclamation points online were made by women.
Of course, concerns regarding an “emotional” tone do not necessarily correspond to perceptions of gender. Even Hemingway’s understated heroes were not always men. Instead of gender stereotypes, the preference for a more verbally restrained style arguably points to cultural traditions that have long associated unemotional language with a kind of gender neutral, “just the facts” professionalism–if simply “toughness,” but a no-nonsense sense of self-control backed-up by cool-headed, rational, impartiality.
Applied to brand voice, these qualities can translate into a perceived professionalism and authority. Of course, this interpretation brings up other questions. For instance, does the “overuse“ of exclamation points risk an “excessively” emotional brand voice? By extension, could the overuse of exclamation points threaten to inspire cultural equations that link emotionalism with an unprofessional lack of self-control? Does sticking to a simple period telegraph a more self-possessed capacity for rational judgment? On the other hand, does a simple period risk making a brand seem flat and unemotional?
I return to the issues of brand authority further on. For my part, I love exclamations of emotion! But, once again, style and tone are all a matter of taste.
There are other possible concerns regarding the “overuse” of exclamation points. Perhaps excessive exclamation points run the risk of exclamation inflation? As people use more exclamation points to telegraph emotion in social media, will we need more and more exclamation points to communicate a desired degree of emphatic tone? Does our over-exposure to the exclamation points threaten to desensitize us to the voices on the other side of our computer screens? Or does the tendency toward excessive exclamation speak to the need to find some hold on our progressively diminishing attention spans? Do excessive exclamation points speak to excitement? Or do they ring more like desperation?
Given the concerns over exclamation points, one might think that a simple period serves as the best bet in crafting a brand voice. So let’s consider the period and it meaning for marketing.
To understand the meaning of the period, it’s helpful to know something about how the marketing profession has itself shaped the meaning of the seemingly innocuous bit of punctuation. Let me explain.
Look at your keyboard. Locate the period. Why’s it there and not, say, closer to the middle?
The most elemental of punctuation marks, the period gets its own place on the QWERTY keyboard, just to the right of the “M” and the comma keys. Originally, the period was supposed to be housed where the “R” currently reside—yep, right there, below numbers 4 and 5. But the period had got displaced, so that all the letters of the word “TYPEWRITER” could be found along the top row. Why? The simple answer is marketing. The QWERTY keyboard was designed as a branding device.
Economist Paul A. David explains:
In March 1873, Densmore succeeded in placing the manufacturing rights for the substantially transformed Sholes-Glidden “Type Writer” with E. Remington and Sons, the famous arms makers. Within the next few months, QWERTY’s evolution was virtually completed by Remington’s mechanics. Their many modifications included some fine-tuning of the keyboard design in the course of which “R” wound up in the place previously allotted to the period mark “.” Thus were assembled into one row all the letters which a salesman would need to impress customers, by rapidly pecking out the brand name: TYPE WRITER.
Built into the contemporary computer keyboard, then, is this earlier history of the period’s “shift,” displaced from its originally central position on the keyboard for the sake of, well, marketing strategy. That’s right. Content writing has always been about supporting sales—but who knew marketing and sales had so fundamentally shaped the content of writing?
Why does any of this matter? After all, what could be more arbitrary than the placement of a period on a keyboard? To which I reply: Arbitrary? Yes—totally arbitrary. But arbitrary does not mean trivial.
After all, imagine the ways in which we might have thought of punctuation differently if it had in fact occupied a more central place among other letters on the keyboard, rather than their peripheries. Punctuation would have an altogether different relationship to our fingers, our muscle memory, our touch, and consequently, the meaning of a sentence. In calling attention to the relationship between punctuation and textual “shift,” I evoke this brief history of the keyboard to underscore how marketing practices interact with design to shape the very meaning of punctuation. It’s nothing new.
The period, off to the side on our typing interfaces, with its no-frills simplicity and ubiquity, might not seem worthy of much fuss. It sits firmly but quietly in the middle of a holy trinity of sentence-ending marks. On its one side rests the uncertainty of the question mark, far to its other side one can find the overpowering certainty of the exclamation mark. These two other terminal points tend to elicit stronger opinions than their modest neighbor in the middle.
Exclamation marks have in fact long stood as a particularly emphatic point of contention. Hemingway stands out as modern literature’s most popular minimalist. But it’s his considerably more verbose friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who gets quoted by critics of exclamation points:
Then there’s the bloggers of Excessive Exclamation!!, a website devoted to visually documenting various cultural artifacts and signs that illustrate a persistent overuse of exclamation marks.
David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make sense of this trend in their digital etiquette book, Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. They write:
Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth. “Thanks!!!!” is way friendlier than “Thanks.” And “Hooray!!!!!” is more celebratory than “Hooray.” Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it where it would normally be. . . . The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email’s essential lack of tone. “I’ll see you at the conference” is a simple statement of fact. “I’ll see you at the conference!” lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.
Given that punctuation plays a role in conveying a writer’s tone to a reader, communication in digital contexts would seem to particularly need punctuation to convey tone. The marks help recipients know how to read messages in media whose users often lament not being able to “read” each other’s moods, finding that with no voice to carry them, tones are easily misinterpreted. This offers an explanation not only for the recent pervasiveness of punctuation that explicitly registers affect—“excessive exclamation!!!!”—but also, and even more popularly, emoticons. 🙂
Of course, the tone of an exclamation point, as we have seen, can come across in many ways. Digital technologies often use an exclamation point as an icon to communicate danger or urgency: For example, when a computer is unable to connect to a network, and the four bars signaling connection shift to an exclamation point. Is the use of punctuation in digital communication undergoing shift to something more like iconography, unrelated to its role in language?
Hemingway’s minimal style avoided the kind of excessive emotionalism often associated with exclamation points. But are periods always a safe alternative? It depends on what one means by “safe.” Some have argued that periods can come across as too safe—as in boring. In her witty Atlantic Wire article, “The Imagined Lives of Punctuation Marks,” Jen Doll personifies various marks, writing,
The period is the good-on-paper guy or girl… You’ll never really fall in love, but you’ll appreciate and respect the Period deeply. And you do, at the end of the day, realize in your heart of hearts that you need him or her. Inevitably, however, you’ll cheat on the Period with the Ampersand, Semi-Colon, or possibly the Interrobang. The Period keeps an impeccably clean house and can be relied upon to come and visit you in the hospital. He/she always forgives. Full-stop.
The Interrobang: The combination of an exclamation point and question mark speaks to the changing conventions of punctuation. It also speaks to the ambiguities of tone in digital media.
Just When You Thought it was Safe to Use a Period!
Still, considering the stakes of the unwieldy exclamation point, it may seem best to just play it safe and just use a period. Sure, the safety of the period may be boring, but boring must be better than all that crazy, excessively emotional, exclamation-point nonsense!!! Periods are rational, cool under pressure. Perhaps. Then again, sometimes emotionalism speaks to a certain authenticity, an openly courageous capacity for self-expression.
Consider, for instance, the critical role of emotional intensity in the last national election—at both ends of the political spectrum. Figures like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were, after all, known for speaking in exclamation points, not understated periods. If exclamation points risk projecting an excessively emotional brand voice, a simple period risks projecting an impersonal lack of feeling. In the world of politics, even a simple period—this seemingly neutral bit of modest punctuation—can elicit controversy.
When it comes to punctuation, there’s no safe play. (By the way, I italicized that last line because it almost certainly counts among the nerdiest collection of words I have ever put together in a single sentence—and that’s saying a lot!!!)
If it projects anything at all, the period’s seeming neutrality can suggest a potentially negative sense of ambivalence. Worse, as Ben Crair has explored, when communicating online, periods can often indicate a certain kind of anger:
“Forward.” or “Forward!”?
Speaking of politics and punctuation, consider the controversial ambivalence inspired by the period employed in the slogan for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. The campaign’s slogan was “Forward.” (As opposed to “Forward!”) A Wall Street Journal article reports: “The period was subject of a spirited debate as Mr. Obama’s senior advisers and outside consultants spent hours in a conference room at their Chicago campaign headquarters deliberating over the perfect slogan, according to an adviser who was in attendance. Does a period add emphasis? Yes! Does it undermine the sense of the word? Maybe!” (The article also illustrates how nearly impossible it is to not play with punctuation when writing about it.)
If “forward” was intended to project voters into the future, the period following it, some feared, seemed to halt the word— and the idea it stands for— in the present. Catherine Pages, a Washington, D.C. art director, was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “There’s been some speculation that the period really gives the feeling of something ending rather than beginning.” Invoking the punctuation mark’s “full stop” alias, one of the president’s advisers and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee, explained, “It’s like ‘forward, now stop.’ It could be worse. It could be ‘Forward’ comma.”
Linguist George Lakoff chimed in to the conversation, responding to questions regarding whether it was even proper English to include a period after one word, confirming that the single word is indeed a legitimate imperative sentence: “You can look at the period as adding a sense of finality, making a strong statement: Forward. Period. And no more. Whether that’s effective is another question.”
Exclamation Points: Signs of the Time
In an age when we increasingly interact as data on the flat space of computer screens, when our habits and knowledge are shaped by algorithmic functions and equations, punctuation marks have to a certain degree taken on the power to stand in for ourselves. Perhaps the widespread “overuse” of exclamations speaks to our immersion in an era of digitalization, where the desire to rid ourselves of ambiguity represented by networked interaction extends to transformations in how punctuation operates as a form of visual self-expression.
Sounds good to me!! 😛
For more on how we can help support your marketing needs, feel free to get in touch!