1 June 2023 Susannah

An Admirable Point

An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark by Florence Hazrat

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.

So, inevitably, I was attracted by a new book – An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark by Florence Hazrat. It’s a delightful read!

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!!!

Do you have a love / hate relationship with exclamation marks, or do you think the more the merrier? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark by Florence Hazrat, from https://twitter.com/StrawberryHillM; & https://amzn.to/3O3GB0N
Body image- Florence Hazrat, https://florencehazrat.com/

Comments (10)

  1. Christine Stevenson

    I, for one, could not do without the exclamation mark!
    And, while we’re on the subject of punctuation, I would love to hear your thoughts on the interrobang.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m glad you also like the exclamation mark. I found the book about it fascinating!
      I am OK with the interrobang, but can’t see myself actually using it.

  2. Maria

    Another ! lover here, Susannah. My use of exclamation marks has increased with my use of texting and social media. Young people caution against overuse as that can dilute its power, and I use it much less in emails or handwritten notes than I do on socials. It’s a good way to convey emphasis in short digital messages and I think the digital era may have saved it from being sidelined. I hope your travels are going well.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I think we do tend to use them more with social media. I don’t use them nearly as much in any formal written piece.

  3. John

    I think there is a place for exclamation marks, but sometimes they are badly overused. It is not uncommon for them to be used to grasp a reader’s attention when more thoughtful prose would be a more elegant and perhaps more profound way in which to do so.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, that’s true – often more carefully worded prose will give the needed emphasis, and they can be over-used, but I am still very fond of them myself.

  4. Pamela Mary WHALAN

    What! A world without exclamation marks! How could I bear it?!!! No! Never! Alas! But there are some who have no respect for a “,”, who cannot distinguish between a “:” and a “:”, who question the use of a “?” and who are incapable of constructing a sentence and so are unable to know when or how to use a “.”.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree! Punctuation does not seem to be taught properly these days. I love exclamation marks and would hate them to disappear. I think you’d enjoy the book about them.

  5. As a fellow public speaker I remain fond of the exclamation mark. In my written work, it somehow manages to convey something of my unspoken enthusiasm!
    Cheers, Jeremy

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Glad you agree with me, Jeremy. We public speakers need them!

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