We learnt many punctuation marks at school. A variety of ways to express emotion in writing. Figures of speech. Multiple sentence forms. And yet, today, all of that has boiled down to, for so many of us, a single measly symbol. The exclamation mark. It has become the universal symbol of expressing all sorts of emotions – from urgency to happiness and disdain to anger. Now while I don’t deny that all of us have the right to exclaim as much as we want, I cannot also deny the intense reaction it provokes in me.
Each time someone sends me a message that ends in an exclamation mark, it makes me feel queasy. Like it’s either an order from someone who is in no position to order me (“Get that done please!”), a patronising comment (“I hope you can repeat this success the next month!”), an expression of assumed but false self-importance (“I am going to be away tomorrow!”) or a mere lack of articulation, especially when the said symbol is used multiple times (“I don’t know what to say!!!”). In all these cases, the usage seems overdone, unnecessary or irritating. Why couldn’t you have simply used a period in place of the exclamation mark? Or at least a single exclamation mark instead of that monstrosity all over your phone or paper?
I may be over-reacting, yes. But considering how integral online/tele conversations have become for us, things like these get grating. It’s almost as irritating as using all caps, which amounts to shouting, or sending across that pestiferous “K” as opposed to the insanely long four-letter word “okay”. These unnecessary exclamation marks in news headlines, text messages, group chats – they make me squirm and feel ill at ease. There is a sense of loss in all those exclamation marks, notwithstanding the enthusiasm or urgency they try to evoke. It’s the loss of a better word, a better adjective, a better way of constructing the sentence, or a better means of garnering emotion. It’s a shout into the already noisy world we live in, and more often than not, dilutes rather than emphasises.
In any case, all I can do to put my mind at ease is lecture anyone who bothers to listen on my theory about exclamation marks. I tell them how these marks must be used sparingly, no matter how strong the temptation. I tell them of alliances that have soured because people sent out messages saying “I had a great time, thank you! Let’s do it again! You give me call!” They stare at me then, these people, and nod and shake their heads. If they subsequently connect with me using a message free of exclamation marks, well, I consider that a victory.