Knowing When To Get To The (Exclamation) Point

If, like me, you were schooled in the proper use of the written word by a stern, ruler-wielding English teacher who applied her red editing pen with liberal glee, it’s been a tough few years.

The advent of email and texting and Twitter have stretched the old rules for written communications past the breaking point.  If my old teachers read some of what passes for writing on those new media, they would loosen their hair buns, put their heads down on their well-worn copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and weep bitter tears.

Consider the exclamation point.  We were taught that the exclamation point was a form of punctuation to be used rarely, if at all.  It might, potentially, be useful to highlight an expression of surprise or a forceful statement, but mostly it was dismissed as a crutch for a poor writer who couldn’t drum up excitement with the story itself.  When I got to journalism school, our acerbic, chain-smoking faculty advisor instructed that exclamation points were never used in a news story.

But now, exclamation points are ridiculously common.  If you look at your recently received texts or emails, you’ll likely see dozens of exclamation points — sometimes even double or triple exclamation points (as well as emoticons, made-up-on-the-spot abbreviations, and other recent linguistic developments).  In fact, at times not using an exclamation point can be interpreted as rude or sarcastic.  You can’t just say “Thanks.”  It has to be “Thanks!” or maybe even “Thanks!!” — or you’re viewed as a surly jerk who isn’t sufficiently appreciative.

For a guy in his 50s, the trick is to avoid sounding like an over-excited teenager (“OMG!!!!”) while at the same time not inadvertently giving offense because you adhere to outdated strictures that used to govern the King’s English.  Where’s the rulebook?  For now, I’ll loosen my use of the exclamation point — but I’m drawing the line at emoticons or substituting numbers or single letters for words!