One used to be enough. In fact, one exclamation mark used to be more than enough. In my first journalism role, I was told I had just one exclamation mark to use throughout the whole of my career. It wasn’t to be thrown away lightly. Perhaps ‘War Over!’ would warrant its use, or maybe ‘Aliens Landed!’. Nothing less would merit one.
A single exclamation mark used to be considered extreme. One grammar guide from 2005 says the exclamation mark “indicates extreme pain, fear, astonishment, anger, disgust, or yelling.” It was loud, scary and OTT. But at some point during the last decade, it has lost its impact.
The exclamation point has been downgraded. It’s no longer a shout of alarm. Instead, it has taken on a role of politeness and friendliness. It’s become a marker of sincerity rather than intensity. Ending an email with ‘Thanks!’ isn’t shouting or even particularly enthusiastic, it’s simply a way of showing that you are genuine in your gratitude.
“Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth.” Shipley and Schwalbe
There’s even a certain social pressure to use exclamation marks, where no such pressure previously existed. In both business and social communications, there’s an unwritten obligation to use them in order to be liked. We can thank non-verbal communication for this new burden. Where so many interactions are now conducted in text form, without tone, facial expressions or body language to smooth the way, it makes sense that we’ve found a new marker. It’s now intuitively understood by most internet users that the exclamation mark is the symbol of a friendly intention.
As such, one exclamation mark is now no longer enough. Language is ever evolving and we’re seeing definite proof of exclamation mark inflation. When a single exclamation mark seems to surface consistently throughout every message (Great meeting! Sounds good! Let’s do it!) it now takes two, three or even four to convey true enthusiasm.
So, how many exclamation marks do you now need to sound genuinely excited? Is four enough? Will four still be enough in a few years’ time, or if exclamation mark inflation continues, will four be the standard for a friendly greeting? Perhaps exclamation marks will fall out of use altogether and be replaced by smileys, even in business communications.
But, before you indulge too much in your personal use of the exclamation mark, remember that Donald Trump is probably its biggest advocate. A recent analysis showed that Trump’s tweets have a nearly 70% likelihood of being signed off with one. When you’re exclaiming about yourself (Look at me!) rather than something outside yourself (Look at your achievement!), it’s never going to reflect well. It becomes the selfie mark of grammar. Beware!
“An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” F Scott Fitzgerald