Six Guidelines for Using Exclamation Points

 July 26, 2012

Interest in the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is growing ahead of the release of the remake of his seminal novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ later this year. The movie, starring Leonardo Di Caprio celebrates the elegance and style of an earlier age – which is also the perfect description of his writing. Fitzgerald also had strong views on the use of the exclamation point – ‘Using an exclamation point is like laughing at one of your own jokes’ and there is something self-serving about using what copy editors sometimes call ‘the bang character’.

Originally derived from the Latin for ‘note of admiration’, exclamation points were originally used to express wonder or joy. From then it became astonishment in the negative sense – ‘that’s the biggest nose I’ve ever seen!’ – as well as in sarcasm and warnings. The recent trend for overuse could be pinned on Tom Wolfe, who used a total of 2,343 in his novel on 80s excess ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ – ironically often compared to ‘Gatsby’ as a novel that comes to represent a particular age or movement.

Now, with the advent of texting and tweeting, it’s more ubiquitous than ever. Editors are slower to adapt to the modern resurgence and constantly preach restraint to their writers in its use. Specifically they worry about being careful not to overhype their clients or product or they will place their credibility in jeopardy. Exclamation points express emotion – they are the written equivilant of a raised voice, so how emotional do you want your writing to be? Press releases that get excited about every small thing are perceived as flighty and unprofessional, while those that don’t show the odd spark can be seen as dull or plodding. It’s a delicate balancing act and nobody ever said writing press releases was easy! Below are some handy hints to keep you use of the exclamation point on a leash until you need it.

1) Always Use Sparingly – they are there to add punch, and overuse renders them effectively useless. This is especially true if the preceding statement is positive. “I can’t wait to see it” or “it was a pleasure meeting you” sound enthusiastic enough without over egging the pudding. As with all rules, there is an exception: using certain exclamatory words without an exclamation point could sound sarcastic or derisive. Note the difference between “Well, that’s fabulous” with “Well, that’s fabulous!”

2) One is enough – Multiple exclamation points suggest that you’re excited or annoyed – the written equivalent of shouting in somebody’s ear. Annoying at best, destructive at worst. Statements like: “I cannot believe you missed that deadline!!!” means the end of professional discourse.

3) Don’t combine with other punctuation marks – Every now and again, someone suggests putting an exclamation point next to a question mark to create the graphic equivalent of “what the heck”. It’s even got a name – the interrobang!. Like what the heck however, it does not and never will belong in a serious press release.

4) Context is King – The more casual the form of communication – text messages, friendly emails or blog posts – the more flexible your writing can be. For press releases, proposals and press releases, keep it professional.

5) Get Personal – Sometimes it can be appropriate to exhibit a personal interest – for instance if somebody in your company has won an award or achieved a significant milestone. Exclamation points communicate emotions that normally rely on vocal intonations or facial expressions so here they can be used sparingly.

6) Share your enthusiasm – As long as it is fitting with the style and tone of the release and sincerely meant, few people would object to genuine complimentary use “You’re amazing!”, “Great job!” or “Well Done!”. In this context, they’re the equivalent of a round of applause or a pat on the back – something we could all use from time to time.

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