If you’ve been reading my newsletter for some years, you might have noticed that I’m fond of using exclamation marks. When I give talks, I am a dramatic speaker, and when writing, I like the fact that using exclamation marks helps make what I write more like the way I speak.
The author explains the origins and history of this particular piece of punctuation, shows how it became derided (“childish”, “irrational”, even “hysterical”) and how grammar and style books advised against its use. However, the determined little stick and dot combination has clung on, and some fascinating chapters in the book look at how it was used in propaganda and war posters (“Keep calm and carry on!”), how it has appeared in book titles (Absalom, Absalom!, Carry On, Jeeves!, Horton Hears a Who! etc), and its uses in recent politics (even my enthusiasm for the exclamation mark was rather dented by reading of Donald Trump’s love for it!). The book is full of intriguing information – that women are three times more likely to use it than men, but more likely to use it politely, that Shakespeare’s First Folio contains only 350 exclamation marks (though that could have something to do with the printer running out of supplies of them), that Hemingway rarely used it, that Jane Austen’s editor deleted some of hers, and that when texting or emailing, the ideal number when you really want to emphasise a point, is three of them – !!! Five is too confusing, only one can be confused with an ‘l’. Did you know that the first typewriters had no key for such a mark, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald said exclamation marks were like laughing at your own jokes?
Is such a mark too noisy and attention-grabbing, “the selfie of grammar”, is it something we don’t need in our language (which has stuck to pretty much unchanged punctuation for 300 years)? In what ways does ! keep us on our toes, letting us know something noteworthy is going on? Should an upside down one be added to the start of a sentence, warning anyone reading aloud that extra emphasis will be needed, as the Spanish did? How did Chekhov use it in a short story, which film titles have it (Mamma Mia! is one example), which place names (Westward Ho! in Devon uses it) and why does it still ruffle feathers today? Hazrat even includes scientific studies which reveal what is happening in our brains when we encounter this dot and line on a page or computer screen.
! crops up everywhere in our daily lives, yet it tends to be placed at the bottom of the punctuation hierarchy. It has left its mark on human history, and I just loved this small but memorable book about the many ways in which it has done so!!!