Recently I wrote a four-sentence email that contained three exclamation points: “It was so hot last week!” “Have a great time on your trip!” “See you soon!” This goes against the rules I learned in school. Like most students in the past 100 years, I was taught to employ these marks “rarely,” because, as Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage puts it, “Overuse of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”
Now, though, we are in a period of exclamation inflation, and I have succumbed. In certain contexts today, it is quite normal to use exclamation marks where once we used periods, and if we have something we really want to emphasize, we need two or three or five.
Like monetary inflation, exclamation inflation goes through cycles, and the last time this form of punctuation offered so little bang for the buck was during the Victorian Era. Victorian writers loaded informal personal letters and novels with a bounty of exclamation marks. In his wonderful “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” David Crystal quotes an 1841 parody of the “popular cheap novels of the day” in which a character reacts to news that his love Clare is marrying a man named Job Snooks: “Can’t be – No go – Stump up to church – Too true – Clare just made Mrs. Snooks – Madness!! rage!! death!!!” Critical reaction to this sort of prose led to the strictures against exclamation points that governed our writing for most of the 20th century.
Today we mostly use exclamation marks in informal contexts, such as on social media. Our punctuation changes when we text, in particular. Periods are not necessary, since hitting “return” or sending the message clearly signals the end of the sentence or thought. As a result, the period has come to be considered formal – a sign, according to my daughter and her friends (as well as linguists who study texting), that the writer is displeased, even angry.
The exclamation point is the new period, one with a built-in warmth. When texting, “I’m coming home” is a simple statement of fact. “I’m coming home.” means you told your daughter to leave her friend’s house and she’s not happy about it. “I’m coming home!” is the default polite way to convey that you are looking forward to it, or at least not upset. “I’m coming home!!!” shows actual excitement.
This usage is spreading from texting to other informal kinds of writing, hence my email. I had to say “See you soon!” to seem excited. It had to be “Have a great time on your trip!” because this is now the polite form. And I had to write “It was so hot last week!” because it was HOT!!!