Ah, the humble exclamation mark. So much debate about such a little thing. Or is it?
For the uninitiated, exclamation marks are, apparently, to be used sparingly at all times. Elmore Leonard once famously opined that “[y]ou are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” F Scott Fitzgerald once told a student that “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. More modern rules include the directive that you should use only one in any one e-mail, for example. In other words, exclamation marks are a bad habit of the novice writer, which must be broken at all costs.
Naturally, there are exceptions. I recently re-read the Harry Potter series, in which exclamation marks are sprinkled with gay abandon. In fact, even a novice writer such as myself noticed the excess of exclaiming, which perhaps says that there may have been a couple too many. A lot of sentences are, in fact, stronger and more meaningful with just a full stop (period) rather than an exclamation mark.
Is the exclamation mark rule quite so cut-and-dried, though? Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian argues that they can make the written word friendlier, especially in things like e-mails which can feel a little sterile otherwise. (It depends, of course, on the content of the e-mail, but “Thanks!” usually sounds friendlier and more enthusiastic in its gratitude than “Thanks.” does. Don’t you agree?)
But what about in fiction? I admit, using it too much is off-putting, and using it in narrative rather than dialogue is just plain annoying. But then again, in dialogue the rules change – apparently up to six per 100,000 words is considered acceptable. A quick scan of my novel (thank you, find function) had somewhat more than that, so clearly I need to do some work on this aspect of my writing, but sometimes I wonder how much weight that old rule still has.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of exclaiming. After all, people do exclaim and that should be recognised. But even I (along with like-minded thinkers) understand that there needs to be a limit. I’m just not sure that six per 100,000 words (in dialogue only) is it.
- Exclamation marks (loiselden.com)
- Punctuation Pet Peeves (bubbyjoysandoys.com)
- Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing (panhandleprofessionalwriters.wordpress.com)
- my rant on punctuation (moderndayruth.net)