Friday - - Mind Games -

One of the most used and overused punc­tu­a­tion marks to­day is the ex­cla­ma­tion mark. At once ar­rest­ing and strik­ing, it calls a reader’s at­ten­tion to it­self and the word or phrase that pre­cedes it with an ur­gency that more of­ten than not isn’t war­ranted. On the con­trary, in gen­eral writ­ing and copy it serves only to an­noy, as if the writer needed to say “How clever was I just then?”.

A fa­mous story tells of how Vic­tor Hugo once asked his pub­lisher how his novel Les Misérables was do­ing with a tele­gram con­sist­ing only of “?”. The pub­lisher’s re­sponse was an en­cour­ag­ing “!”.

Show­biz his­tory is pep­pered with in­stances of an ex­cla­ma­tion mark adding zing to a film or mu­si­cal’s ap­peal, some­times be­ing the sub­lim­i­nal key to its suc­cess at the box of­fice: Ok­la­homa!, Oliver!, Boomerang!, Viva Zapata!, Boom! (one in­stance where it por­tended a bomb rather than a hit), Hello, Dolly!, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Oh! Cal­cutta!, Hair!, Air­plane!, ¡Three Ami­gos! (don’t miss that in­verted ex­cla­ma­tion mark at the begin­ning, which is unique to Span­ish), all the way up to Moulin Rouge! and Mamma Mia!

In In­tel­li­gent Life magazine, Man Booker Prize win­ner Ju­lian Barnes be­moans its overuse to­day: “I feel sorry for the ex­cla­ma­tion mark. It used to keep such high com­pany, mark such weighty mat­ters of ter­ror and vil­lainy. ‘Oh damn’d Iago! O in­hu­mane Dogge!’ cries Roderigo when stabbed. ‘Drowned! O where?’ keens Laertes of his sis­ter Ophe­lia. It was a punc­tu­a­tional ef­fect kept on a high shelf, and used spar­ingly by good writ­ers, who knew that the noise it made would carry like a gun­shot.

“[Lex­i­cog­ra­pher] Fowler in 1926 laid down that ‘ex­ces­sive use of ex­cla­ma­tion marks is… one of the things that be­tray the un­e­d­u­cated or un­prac­tised writer’. Nowa­days, the ex­cla­ma­tion mark is the sl*g of punc­tu­a­tion, slum­ming around with emoti­cons and OMGs. Some of My Best Friends lit­ter their emails with ‘!!!!!!!!’, like lines of poplars by French canals. And is there any­thing more de­press­ing than the hand-drawn ver­sion, in which the out­line of a cigar sits perk­ily atop a small cir­cle?”

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