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?”