On Shrieks and Bangs

No, I’m not talking about the recent Halloween, or the fireworks on bonfire night. Instead I return to the merits (or otherwise) of the exclamation mark. A new book has been published devoted to this aspect of punctuation – An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark! by Florence Hazrat.

The exclamation mark (also sometimes referred to as – the shriek, the bang, the slammer, the screamer, or the gasper) is described by Hazrat as “an emotional amplifier whose flamboyantly dramatic gesture lets the reader know ‘here be feelings.’” Apparently, they are used much more frequently by women writers than by men. (Surely not!)

The exclamation mark had its origins in the middle ages, and has gone in and out of fashion thereafter. Modern style guides advise against its use, although it remains popular with the writers of jingles and slogans for adverts. In the days of printing presses and typesetters, reporters were known to refer to it as the ‘dog’s cock’ when phoning in their copy.

It is not popular with comedy writers, who tend to be in agreement that any joke that needs an exclamation mark isn’t very funny in the first place. It does draw attention to the funny bit you’re writing, but looks a bit like ‘laughing at your own joke’ (F Scott Fitzgerald). A writer who feels the need to draw attention to their wit – with italics and exclamation marks and such like – is, says Mark Twain, “very depressing and makes one want to give up joking and lead a better life.”

Terry Pratchett was of a similar view, believing that even one exclamation mark was a sign of a diseased mind, and five was the equivalent to wearing your underpants on your head.

We will never know what he would have made of Donald Trump who takes a very different tack especially on Twitter where his tweets (until he was banned) were littered with comments like ‘Sad!’ ‘Nice!!’ ‘Terrible!!!’ ‘Unfair!!!’ An analyst who clearly had nothing better to do with his time, went through the president’s pre-2015 election tweets and found 60% had at least one exclamation mark, 10% had two, and many had three or four. And who knows – with the ‘anything goes’ Elon Musk taking over Twitter, Trump – and his quiver full of exclamation marks – could be back shooting tweets at the world again.

I can’t wait!

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