Do you admire the exclamation mark?

Article written by Stratcore copywriter and English editor: Bahram Macksey Rafat

There were no spaces between words at the dawn of writing because of the cost of materials and the time and know-how needed. A look at ancient tablets shows us this. (Writing was the provenance of an elite few.) You’ll read something akin to, ‘THERAINISFALLINGVERYHARDANDMAKINGPUDDLES.’ Spaces between words was a development, as was punctuation.

The full stop was introduced from the Ancient Greek, from the 3rd century BCE onwards, thanks to Aristophanes of Byzantium’s system. The full stop was a high dot (˙). It signified the end of a complete thought. There was a middle dot that acted somewhat like a semicolon. The low dot was like a comma. From the 9TH century CE with monastic scribes all over Europe producing and copying manuscripts the low dot as full stop became the dominant usage; it became universal with the establishment of printing in Western Europe.

While Ancient Greek can be credited with the full stop’s origin, the exclamation mark’s possible origins are to be found in a Latin expression of joy, ‘Io’, which was akin to saying hurrah. ‘Io’ was written at the end of sentences to signal joy. From there ‘I’ sat above the ‘o’ which itself started to be written smaller and smaller until it became a dot!

Fourteenth-century Italian poet, Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia, took credit for the exclamation mark, claiming to have invented it. He called it ‘punctus admirativus’. We can see in the second word the idea of admiration, applied to the exclamation mark.

Language is thought expressed, ideas revealed (and sometimes concealed).

The exclamation mark has a few roles in writing for indicating the nature of the sentence:

  1. Regret or wish: ‘If only I’d asked her out for a coffee!’
  2. Shouting or anger: ‘You utter buffoon!’
  3. Surprise, dislike, absurdity: ‘He was asking the Prime Minister if he’d driven a UFO!’
  4. Commands and/or warnings: ‘Don’t drink that!’; ‘Hands up!’

Style guides, for careful writing, advise sparing use of the exclamation mark to avoid a spurious sense of drama. Overuse can be seen as the writer trying to add excitement or humour or sensation to over-nudge the reader to ‘feel’ the sentence is funny or exciting. F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps being a little too exacting, said: ‘An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.’ We take the point, though it is sometimes good to laugh at one’s own jokes – but not too often!

Outside of the numbered examples, in this piece I’ve used the exclamation mark twice so far. I think the second instance above (‘but not too often!’) is fitting. The first exclamation mark I used, in relation to the ‘o’ becoming smaller and smaller until it became a dot is, I think, overdone. I put it in to provide a little food for thought. The reader’s reaction was likely to have been, ‘Yes, interesting, but not amazing.’ Its usage created a spurious sensation, I think.

I conclude with a couple of remarks. The first is about space in text. When the typewriter was much used people were advised to place two spaces after the full stop to end a sentence, for greater readability. Now that we use word processing software, that second space is not needed (though some people still use it out of habit).

My second remark is about how usage of the exclamation mark reveals a host of emotions and ways of thinking about the way we interact with the world and with others and express those feelings and ideas in writing. And at times, in writing as in conversation, and in the things we do, we overdo it!

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