(or How I learnt to stop worrying and love the shriekmark) In the grammatical good old days, exclamation marks were reserved for emergencies. Now they litter our texts, tweets and even – horrors – work emails. But is that a bad thing? Adam Dudding investi
Without even noticing, I have become a serial over-user of a piece of punctuation so disreputable that it’s known as the “screamer”.
Acouple of weeks, ago my Gmail account suddenly updated itself. There were new fonts and colours, differently shaped checkboxes and some other pointless changes, but also something quite creepy.
At the bottom of each incoming email, I am now presented with three little buttons to click, each with a different pre-cooked response that Google, in all its artificial wisdom, reckons might reflect my true feelings.
Here are few of the things Google has recently suggested I mean to say:
Like most modern ills, the internet is to blame. First email, then social media, then ubiquitous smartphones have spurred successive leaps in the volume of high-speed, low-importance communications we conduct purely in text form.
We write workplace globals announcing Today Is Clear-Out-The-Fridge Friday! We receive last-minute text requests from our partners for a bottle of milk and a loaf of Vogel’s just after we’ve reached the supermarket checkout. We tweet. We Instagram. We engage in the banterised foreplay of app-based dating. We do polite battle with those infuriating virtual assistants that pop up when you go online to complain about a power bill. So much nattering and chattering that might once have been said out loud must now be typed.
Sprinkle your messages with non-verbal “textisms”, the theory goes, and you’ll seem like a nicer person.
The problem with textual interactions, though, is they lack the real-world nuances of facial expression, handwaving, body-language and intonation, and can seem strangely blunt. So we’ve collectively invented a new vocabulary of textual softeners: non-standard punctuation and capitalisation, jocular misspellings such as “aaaaand”, or “weeeeeeeelllll”, emoticons such as :-) or ; emojis like or .
Somewhere along this journey, the exclamation mark developed a curiously specific new function: it’s the sign you put at the end of a sentence to indicate that you’re not being sarcastic.
As online-language expert Gretchen McCulloch told The Atlantic, “the single exclamation mark is being used not as an intensity marker but as a sincerity marker”.
There’s more punctuation-related science going on than you might have imagined.
In 2016, an experiment run by psychology professor Celia Klin showed that if you put a fullstop at the end of a text message, the reader will interpret it as more negative and less enthusiastic than if it had been left unpunctuated.
A 2006 study, Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication, discussed the well-established fact that women use exclamation marks more often than men, but claimed that contrary to earlier sexist assumptions, this wasn’t because women were more excitable than men. Rather, women were more eager than men to appear agreeable. Sprinkle your messages with non-verbal “textisms”, the theory goes, and you’ll seem like a nicer person.
That’s certainly how it seems to my Stuff colleague Sinead Corcoran, who writes a column about her dating adventures.
Corcoran says for a female user of dating apps, the biggest fear is that she will come across as moany or negative. And for some reason even the simplest of declarative sentences comes across all passive-aggressive, unless you soften it with some textisms.
Consider the innocuous phrase “That sounds nice”. Read it cold, and it feels kind of sarcastic. But throw a little dog’s dick on the end – “That sounds nice!” – and it magically transforms into something cheerful and non-sarky.
The point, says Corcoran, is that you always “want to come across as a fun carefree gal who’d be fun and carefree in real life”.
The tragedy for Corcoran’s dates, of course, is that in reality, “I’m not fun or carefree. I have so many cares.”
Corcoran would never be so crass as to use a double exclamation mark – she is a professional writer, after all – but she’s not above the occasional gif. Nothing projects an upbeat attitude and a willingness to be flexible around dating arrangements like a quick copy-paste of a ½-second loop of Steve Carell doing a naff wink.
Emojis serve a similar function, but tread carefully, Corcoran warns. Constant semantic inflation means the basic iterations no longer cut it.
“There’s nothing more pass-agg than a plain smiley-face,” claims Corcoran (she means one like this: ). Instead, she always reaches for this one , whose smirky/sexy vibe is much better.
Whether it’s rampant exclamation marks, smiley faces or cheesy gifs, the idea is always the same, says Corcoran: signalling how totally non-crazy you are.
“It’s all about softening the message so you don’t look like a psycho.”
Outside the shark-tank of online dating, however, Corcoran drops the exclamation marks almost completely. Her female friends already know and love her, warts and all, so when texting them, “I don’t care if I sound like a bitch who won’t use exclamation marks”.
So this is where we’ve got to. In a few short years we’ve moved from using the occasional