Most people will recognize the exclamation point (!)—it’s one of the most widely used punctuation marks in the English language. But what does it actually signify?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an exclamation mark as “A sudden cry or remark expressing surprise, strong emotion, or pain.”
So, ! enhances our emotional expression, adds meaning, aids understanding, emphasizes warnings and commands; its popularity is hardly a surprise. It’s so flexible!
Take a look at these examples:
Stick to the rules!
Beware deep water!
She said no!
Ouch, that hurts!
Hey, you, come over here!
Eeek, a mouse!
! has even paired with the question mark to create brand-new punctation mark—the interrobang, to form an interrogative exclamation—as in What the heck!? and Do you think you’ll get away with that!?
Today, we’re used to both using and seeing ! in our written communications, but that wasn’t always so. In fact, for some grammar and style commentators, both past and present, using exclamation points in your writing is the equivalent of eating your peas with a knife in a restaurant—decidedly vulgar.
That most elegant of writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped that using ! was the ‘equivalent of laughing at your own jokes.’
British journalist Mark Forsyth, in his article for Spectator magazine entitled Beware! (13 October 2018), notes how Sir Ernest Gowers, in his renowned style guide The Complete Plain Words, omits ! completely. So does the respected The Economist magazine’s Style Guide.
A brief Investigation into the history of ! reveals just how this contentious and expressive little mark rose to its current prominence.
Origins and History
The exact origins of ! are unknown, but it’s suggested that today’s mark evolved from the Latin IO, an expression denoting a joyful exclamation. But in its original form the dot was on top. Over time, the figure was reversed and became the mark we know today.
Surprisingly, it took a simple printing issue plaguing early comic book writers to bring the ! out of the shameful shadows and into today’s cultural spotlight with a resounding ‘Ta-da!’
BANG! SPLAT! KERPOW!
When comics first appeared in the late twenties, writers found that when they used periods at the end of words and sentences, they would simply disappear in the printing process. Impactful words and sentences were rendered period-less and powerless, shorn of emphasis, disappointing readers. The ingenious solution they found was to replace periods with !, which survived the printing process.
That’s how the familiar comic-book stylings BANG! POW! and ZAP!, amongst others, came into common usage and invaded popular culture as we know it today. In solving their problem, comic book writers capitalized on the emphatic nature of ! to express the lively sounds, actions, and movements depicted in the story frames.
Hence, in the printing world, the exclamation point is known as “the bang,” “the shriek,” and even “the screamer.”
! rocks in popular culture
Generations have grown up with the hyperbolic !!! of comics and are largely ignorant of the style gurus’ rather quaint dismissals of the power of !. What came next to cement !’s place in the punctuation pantheon?
Was the exclamation point the first emoji?
More recent technology has definitely put the seal on the popularity of !. Texts, SMS, emails, Internet posting—all faceless, emotionless written interactions, and often puzzling for that very reason. But like the letter writers of past centuries, users quickly grasped ! to add mood and nuance to cold hard text.
Informal or formal?
Are there times when we’re writing when we should leave out the ! ? Well, there’s an argument that says in formal writings— essays, theses, formal letters— ! is best left out.
So, writers can conclude that it’s their decision whether to use ! in their writing, and when to use it. Maybe you’re a purist, or maybe you like to sprinkle this expressive little mark here and there to add emphasis in certain places. Whichever camp you fall into, it’s up to you!