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Why the exclamation mark is still something to get excited about!

The Sunday MagazineWord Processing: The exclamation mark has a rich history! And it deserves more respect!

The exclamation mark has arguably seen better days.

The explosion of emojis on smartphones and social media offers hundreds of alternatives to the old-fashioned exclamation mark. On the other hand, its excessive use by some public figures has led critics to malign its oversaturation in public discourse.

But literary scholar Florence Hazrat argues we could use more exclamation marks — or exclamation points, depending on your preference — in our lives, not fewer.

"I'm not only exclaiming in text messages, I'm also exclaiming in emails and on social media and in handwritten letters," said Hazrat, author of An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!

"The more the better, I think, although of course, it depends what we are exclaiming about and to whom we do it," she said from Berlin in an interview with The Sunday Magazine guest host David Common.

Born out of frustration

The exclamation mark was conceived in the 14th century by Italian scholar Alpoleio da Urbisaglia. Hazrat said he "felt very annoyed" that people were reading script with a flat tone, even if it was written to elicit emotions.

To correct this, he proposed a combination period and hanging apostrophe in his treatise The Art of Punctuating.

It took many years for people to learn how and when to use the exclamation mark, Hazmat said. Early on, scholars confused it with a question mark. Printing presses slowly incorporated the ! block in the 1400s, but printers weren't sure exactly when to use the then-unfamiliar mark.

Was it supposed to denote excitement? Anger? Passion? All of them or none?

"It always takes time for us to figure out what a new thing in language or in writing does or what we want it to do," Hazmat said.

Literary juggernauts varied wildly in their use of the mark. The few surviving handwritten pages from William Shakespeare had none of them. Hazrat speculates he was not overly concerned with his missives, preferring to trust his actors to infuse his words with the appropriate emotions.

However, English poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who was born in the late 16th century, used exclamation marks frequently and with precision. And author Jane Austen's original manuscripts were littered with notation, from exclamation marks to underlines and dashes.

"A lot of writers — also contemporaries of Jane Austen, like William Wordsworth, for example — would think of themselves as not good punctuaters, although probably better than today. And they would actually expect the editor and the publisher to clean the manuscript up," Hazrat said.

Suspicion and backlash

It wasn't until the 20th century that Hazrat would find evidence of popular opinion turning against the exclamation mark. Writers became more interested in writing as an exact science with pinpoint use of grammar, instead of emotion and rhetoric.

"I think we just somehow have become suspicious of emotion and suspicious of effective writing and effectively expressing ourselves," she said.

"People complaining about the exclamation point is kind of the literary equivalent of people complaining about uptalk," research linguist Daniel W. Hieber, who works with the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, said, referring to the verbal habit of adding a rising intonation at the end of a statement.

"It's this thing that's used to express affect, and people have these stereotypes around it and they think that you're expressing too much emotion."

Comic books relied heavily on exclamation marks to accentuate their over-the-top characters and action sequences, said Canadian comic book writer and artist Chip Zdarsky.

Exclamation marks were also used out of necessity. According to Zdarsky, periods would get lost during the printing process as recently as the 1960s. The larger exclamation marks were more visible, so they became the default way to end a sentence.

"Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark. It didn't matter who was saying it or what the subject was," he said. "There were just no periods in early Marvel Comics."

But during the 1970s, Marvel Comics became hesitant to use them, as part of the industry's ebb and flow of trying to appeal to adult readers.

"There was a brief period where ... exclamation marks were banned, or at least they were told to cut back on them, because they were seen as tied to juvenile material," Zdarsky said. "That didn't last very long."

Social media resurgence

Hazrat said she potential for the exclamation mark's rise to prominence in the social media era. It's now easier than ever to use one, or many in succession, with a tap on your smartphone or a click on the keyboard.

"Social media is, of course, a platform to be social and to be warm and affectionate," she said.

Its ease of use has led to some specific flashpoints, however. Take the Twitter feed of former U.S. president Donald Trump, who used an exclamation mark 33,000 times across 56,000 tweets.

"The Exclamation Point is Over. Donald Trump Killed It," Vogue magazine declared in December 2016.

Screenshot of a Donald Trump tweet.
A tweet by former U.S. president Donald Trump from Oct. 7, 2020, features 12 exclamation marks. (@realDonaldTrump/Twitter)

"In language, the more we use something, the more it loses its semantic kick and it kind of gets bleached of its meaning," Hieber said.

But Zdarsky argues that despite objections from some wordsmiths, Trump's overuse helped rather than hindered him.

"The Donald Trump thing's interesting because he comes across as a cartoon character. Whether you see him as a hero or a villain, it works, I think, because it's different than what you normally see from politicians," he said.

As social media has evolved and grown, so has an ever-increasing library of emoji, from happy and sad faces to icons representing food, flags and professions.

Emojis displayed on smart phone screens.
Emojis are displayed on smartphone screens. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Hazrat said she believes the exclamation mark "is going to win out" rather than be smothered by the volume of emojis, thanks in part to its relative simplicity.

"While I really love this inclusivity of emojis ... I actually believe that they're not useful because it takes so long to identify which one is in front of me and takes a long time to pick them," she said.

"[The exclamation mark's] shape is so recognizable, so simple, you can't mix it up with anything else."

Canada, it turns out, can boast an unusual place in the history of the exclamation mark: The small Quebec community of Saint-Louis-du-Ha!Ha! holds the Guinness World Record for the most exclamation marks in a place name.