Last week I edited an annual report written by a non-profit group. Knowing the group wanted “donor-centric” copy, I deliberately left tone and style alone. Instead, I did things that aimed for consistency, accuracy and ease of reading a sentence, like fixing typos and adding capital letters and commas where they were needed and removing them where they weren’t.
But then I came to five! exclamation marks! in just six sentences! I suggested changing three into periods, which I thought showed restraint.
The client resisted, saying that she thought being conversational (meaning those exclamations) meant that “a lot of traditional grammar will be going right out of the window.”
I respectfully disagreed. Grammar is important even in a friendly, conversational piece. Done correctly, it doesn’t get in the way of conversational; it just helps the structure get out of the way of the meaning.
One of the problems with so many exclamations — besides annoying many readers — is it dilutes the importance of these sentences. The Canadian Writer’s Handbook says the exclamation point is appropriate for:
“emphatic surprise, emphatic query, or strong emotion,” but cautions, “Try to make your sentences appropriately emphatic without resorting to this sometimes artificial device.”
Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, says:
“grammarians have warned us to be wary of the exclamation mark, mainly because…it still shouts, flashes like neon, and jumps up and down…I suppose the rule is: only use an exclamation mark when you are absolutely sure you require such a big effect.”
She quotes H.W. Fowler as saying,
“An excessive use of exclamation marks is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”
My friend and colleague Amy Sept calls the overuse of exclamation marks “hyperventilating” (a term I love). She quotes an email she received with a four-sentence paragraph in which every sentence ended with an exclamation, saying, “After one brief paragraph, I felt like I was facing a too-perky barista waiting for my morning coffee — and they weren’t handing it over.”
CP Style, as Amy notes, says to use the exclamation mark “to denote great surprise, a command, deep emotion, emphasis and sarcasm” and not “to end a mildly exclamatory sentence.” Hear, hear!
Is it curtains for the ‘full stop’?