A row of exclamation points and caution-sign triangles

In Defense of Scorned Punctuation

The exclamation point is a punching bag. Mark Twain condemned it as a “depressing habit” that “makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.” A century later, F. Scott Fitzgerald advised that using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. In Bullhorn’s official Style Guide, the third rule of punctuation is: “Do not use the exclamation point.” No ifs, ands, or buts.

Exclamation points are peppered freely in today’s cultural landscape. They’re everywhere. And yet, there’s a steady stream of punches still being thrown at the mark (see here, here, and here). How did the exclamation point come to be swaddled in such shame in the first place? And, what does all of this mean for your brand communication?

To answer that, you have to know a little bit about punctuation. Before mass literacy, the written word was mostly intended as an aid for orators. Reading silently to yourself was not something you did. To be fair, I’d imagine carrying around stone tablets would be less than ideal. So, punctuation and word-spaces didn’t exist. There wasn’t a need. Sentenceswouldhavelookedlikethis. OrSometimeSLikeThiS (but in Greek, and inscribed on stone).

Text that says, "sentenceswouldhavelookedlikethis" with no spaces between words

The exclamation mark is rumored to have stemmed from the Latin prefix “io,” meaning joy. The first documentable origin is the “point of admiration” in the 14th century, necessitated by the desire during the Renaissance to emulate classical orators in literature. It looked something like a slanted colon with a long accent mark to the right. It became the exclamation point (mark, in Great Britain) in the 17th century, accompanied by the literary drama.

In keeping with the chaos of punctuation at large, its meaning from the beginning was vague and erratic. Randle Cotgrave added no clarity in the French/English dictionary of 1611, writing that the point is: “the point of admiration (and of detestation).” Over the next couple of centuries, it collected a number of derogatory nicknames: shriek, gasp, bang, screamer, shout, and so on. All of which could very well be mistaken for the description of a Victorian lady suffering from hysteria.

The mark was popular amongst the Victorians. Victorian novelists liked to insert their opinions on characters and their predicaments. In Middlemarch, George Eliot used the point as a tongue-in-cheek nod at the ridiculousness of patriarchy validated by “science,” writing: “Mr. Brooke wondered, and felt that women were an inexhaustible subject of study, since even he at his age was not in a perfect state of scientific prediction about them!” The exclamation point, in this way, offered a way of communicating judgment on the superfluousness of characters and situations, dwindling the possibility – or, as they may have seen it, mitigating the risk – of a reader’s open interpretation.

The Modernists detested tropes of Victorian literature, and in most matters took great pains to do exactly the opposite. For writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Woolf, it was as much about what was not said than what was said. In 10 Rules of Writing, author Elmore Leonard permitted 2-3 exclamation points per 100,000 words as acceptable. (In his writing, he averaged 49 per 100,000 words. Fitzgerald, who, as you remember, equated its use to laughing at your own joke, averaged 356.)

Four archaic punctuation marks: the acclamation point, certitude point, authority point, and interrobang

This sentiment held until the 1960s. American author Tom Wolfe unabashedly used exclamation points in his writing, because he said that was “how people really think.” There were a number of efforts to add iterations of the mark elucidating exactly what emotion was amplified by the mark – the acclamation point (goodwill), certitude point (unwavering conviction), authority point (you guessed it – authority), and the interrobang – the only one to stick, modified as “?!”. The rest were squashed by the early 1970s.

We are now in another era of the exclamation mark – largely via digital communication, to affirm that you are not devoid of emotion. (“Oh, what fun.” carries a very different message from “Oh, what fun!”) Trivial communication is made permanent in a way only material deemed important has been in the past. Everyone is a writer. Digital natives, in particular, are well-versed in this age of exclamation-pointing. Inevitably, brands will have to wrestle with how to integrate contemporary communication styles – how to stay relevant – while also keeping messaging appropriate and on-brand. Here are three considerations for determining your brand’s tolerance for exclamation-pointing.

1. Know who you are.

Taking time to think about and outline your brand personality and voice should be the first step toward determining if using exclamatory language feels authentic to who you are. Are you serious and direct? Friendly and approachable? Are you more like an old friend, or are you more like a wise mentor? If you are more casual, and likely consumer-facing, an occasional exclamation point may just contribute to that lovable persona. If you are a serious, cause-driven brand, you might risk coming across as not self-aware or flippant. At Bullhorn, a guideline for voice is to be “smart and irreverent.” When using humor, a dry tone works best for us. An exclamation point just wouldn’t seem right.

2. Know who you’re talking to.

Think about your audience. Consumers who are digital natives? Company executives in a B2B position? These groups likely have different expectations, tolerances, and associations for the mark. While digital natives are well-versed and may expect exclamation points as a trope of communication, the latter might perceive such as unprofessional or gimmicky.

3. Know your context.

There is also a difference in core brand language and advertising. Your brand language set – core values, taglines, headlines, elevator pitch – should work in all times and places. And, it should last. Advertising, on the other hand, lives in a different environment. It is situated within the cultural landscape, a specific time and place. It necessarily must respond to other environs. Using an exclamation point in a context-specific print advertisement or social media ad might work for a normally-serious brand to lighten up the voice.

So put away the boxing gloves. Despite the naysayers, an exclamation point does have merit in its time and place. But, it’s safe to say the Bullhorn Style Guide won’t be changing any time soon.

Kate Baughman
Kate Baughman
Senior Writer

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