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in Filmmaking
on May 1, 2009

I twittered this, but it deserves its own blog post: Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian discusses the rise of the exclamation mark in today’s email culture. As someone who was called out recently for excessive use of the exclamation mark in my emails — punctuation I rarely use in other writing — I found this article fascinating. (I’ve also been challenged by my editorial practice in Filmmaker of using exclamation marks to connote laughter rather than using (laughs). An excerpt:

Shipley is comment editor of the New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books. Those of you thinking that grown men with serious jobs should be above such phrases as “way friendlier” should realise that in the 21st century, adult appropriation of infantilisms is de rigueur, innit? Today, no one reads or cares about Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in which it is maintained: “Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”

Shipley and Schwalbe argue that in the internet age, a dash of sensation is just what is needed. “Email is without affect,” they write. “It has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be.” Shipley and Schwalbe are merely offering a post-hoc justification of what already happens online. OMG!!! We like totally used exclamation marks before Shipley and Schalbe said it was OK!!!

Hold on a second. Why should email in particular be without affect? Weren’t earlier forms of written correspondence – telegrams, say, or letters – equally so? There must be something else going on. Arguably, users of each form develop styles to suit the medium. Telegrams, for instance, were likely to be terse, if only for financial reasons. Thus, one day Victor Hugo sent a telegram to his publisher. He wanted to know how his new book was doing. His telegram read: “?”; the publisher’s reply: “!”. The exclamation mark, you see, meant Hugo’s book was doing well. The publisher could have deployed sentences of Proustian length to explain the novel’s success among the target demographic of 18- to 35-year-old Parisians, but he saved a few centimes by cutting to the chase.

It is important to realise that advances in technology (if that’s what they are) affect how we write. And how we write includes how often we deploy the beloved gasper. Before the 1970s, few manual typewriters were equipped with an exclamation mark key. Instead, if you wanted to express your unbridled joy at – ooh, I don’t know – the budding loveliness of an early spring morning and gild the lily of your purple prose with an upbeat startler, you would have to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe. Which is enough to take the joie de vivre out of anyone’s literary style. In the springs following the advent of the manual typewriter’s exclamation marks, typed paeans to seasonal budding loveliness teemed with exclamation marks. Or at least I hypothesise that they did. I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

So, forgive me for my occasional use of the exclamation point, but you all have the right to slap me down if you see me using emoticons.:)

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