How do you like being told what to do? (Wait a minute … let me tune in to me telepathic powers …). You don’t? I thought not. Me either.
How about being told what to feel? (This time, I’ll use my Spidey senses …). You don’t like that, either, do you. I am in fine company then.
Well, this segues nicely into today’s topic: the exclamation mark.
But before I turn this innocent, somewhat unsuspecting mark into the proverbial black sheep of the punctuation realm, we’ll look at when and how to use it.
Egads! don’t you think I know that? you’re thinking. (I know that’s what you’re thinking … Spidey senses, remember?).
Whoa! I’m not telling you what to think; I’m just telling you (by these expressionistic marks [!!!]) how to think it.
And that’s what happens when you use one: you are telling the reader, “This is exciting!”
But how do you, the reader, know that it is exciting? And, better still, how can I show you how exciting it is and have you feel it for yourself, instead of having me tell you how to feel?
Using frequent exclamation marks is kind of like holding up the applause card and expecting the approved, polite audience response. Instead, use the exclamation mark as you would use a rare spice–saffron–to season your writing.
Use it with an expletive (but not in What’s Up Yukon because we are family friendly). Use it with a command: Stop! With descriptors such as “Yuck!” or with declarations such as “Guilty!”
Use it when one word is enough: “Yes!” or when two sound more official: “You’re fired!”
! is an extreme punctuation mark and, when used frequently, tends to dull the reader’s own emotional response. It may even get them thinking something like this: Am I supposed to be excited about this?
I want you to go downtown! I need some chocolate! (Now, that last one might warrant an exclamation mark.) Or, Isn’t my dog great! (You’re not really asking because there is no other answer but yes.)
Do you see how easy it is to tire of these marks?
With exclamation marks, less is more. Try using “showing” details in your writing that express how you are feeling instead of telling with an ! or, worse yet, with !!
There is a punctuation mark that has, perhaps, not come into its own just yet in the punctuation world–the interrobang: an exclamation and question mark combined … for those times when you are truly excited and truly questioning, this may say it all and solves this problem.