Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
In the age of email and Twitter, the exclamation point has become the emblem of the times. Americans are junkies, studding them breathlessly behind even the most mundane utterances. It’s a molehill! OMG!!!
Referred to variously as screamers, gaspers, slammers, or bangs, exclamation points add drama, enthusiasm, and excitement. They indicate strong emotion – fear, anger, joy, surprise –anything intended to show high intensity at high volume. But in these hectic days when news travels around the world at warp speed and we’re all feeling a bit hyper, periods make personal communication seem boring, unfriendly even. In certain social exchanges, the ! has become obligatory. The Onion satirized the phenomenon this way: “In a diabolical omission of the utmost cruelty, stone-hearted ice witch Leslie Schiller sent her friend a callous thank-you email devoid of even a single exclamation point.”
Jeb Bush thought he had captured the zeitgeist when he adopted “Jeb!” for his campaign slogan. Unfortunately, one ! wasn’t enough. Compared to President Trump, Jeb is a piker, !-wise. The Donald hurls them like thunderbolts, punctuating almost every tweet with several. He uses them to celebrate (“The world was gloomy before I won!”); to praise (“GREAT review of my speech!”); and to berate those who get under his skin (“Enemy of the people!”).
As you might expect, authors hold strong opinions about when and how often thunderbolts should be hurled. F. Scott Fitzgerald said an exclamation mark was like laughing at your own joke. The British novelist Miles Kingston regards them as the equivalent of a man holding up a cue card reading “laughter” to a studio audience. One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing warns writers to keep their gaspers under control. “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” However as it turns out, he failed to follow his own advice. A recent book by Ben Blatt, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, reveals that Leonard resorted to the bang 1,651 times over the course of his 3.4 million word career, more than 16 times as many as he advised. Of course a lot of surprising and exciting stuff happened in his books, but by his own rule, he should have had no more than 102 bangs.
Unlike Leonard, Tom Wolfe loves the slammer. He believes that people think in dots, dashes, and exclamation points, and only when they sit down to compose a calmly reflective essay do they end their sentences with periods. According to Mr. Blatt’s tally, Wolfe averages 929 slammers per 100,000 words. That’s not as many as James Joyce (1,105 per 100,000), but it runs counter to the recommendation of most grammarians.
Notwithstanding Jeb, Donald, Elmore, Tom, and James – and forgetting for a moment the stone-hearted ice witch Leslie Schiller – punctuation studies show that the vast majority of screamers are perpetrated by women. Wouldn’t you just know? Those of us who were born with wombs are, alas, by etymological and linguistic bias, the “hysterical” gender. I was pleased to note that the screaming habit does not pertain to all female authors. By Mr. Blatt’s count, Jane Austen peppered her six novels with a judicious 449 yips per 100,000 words. The even more restrained Toni Morrison employed a scant 111 per 100,000 words in ten full-length novels.
One reason for the proliferation of the exclamation mark today may be the fact that there’s a handy key for it. Prior to the 1970s, if you wanted to produce a ! on your manual typewriter, you had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe. Imagine how much energy it would take to type a whole row of them!!!!!!
Some writers regard this infestation of exclamation points as a blight on the English language, a copout by writers who don’t take the trouble to construct sentences that convey emotion through a careful choice of words. On the other hand, there have been occasions when one little ! spoke volumes. There’s an anecdote about Victor Hugo, who was traveling away from London following the publication of Les Miserables. Telegrams were expensive back then, but he was worried and anxious to know if anyone was buying his new book. He screwed up his courage and cabled his publisher a terse and tentative “?”.
The publisher replied with an equally terse and enthusiastic “!”.
The book was selling like hotcakes. That’s the kind of bang every writer dreams of.