July 30, 2012
Hello! I want you to know that I'm SUPER excited about this week's column!! It's about exclamation points!!!!
I recently received a work-related email riddled with them, as if it was written by an overcaffeinated glee club. "Well," I said, harrumphing just like they taught me to do at Codger University. "How unprofessional."
But a few days later, I caught myself writing a work email filthy with exclamation points. Normally I assume that everything I do is right, but this gave me pause.
Have we become an exclamation point-addicted society? And is it OK for a professional to freely use a punctuation mark my high school English teacher would've clubbed me for using?
As most of you know, the exclamation point was born in the late 1800s in the small English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. According to the legend I am fabricating, the wisest woman in town was Eunice Exclam, who was very hard of hearing and yelled when she spoke.
On matters great and small, the townsfolk would seek Exclam's advice, which she would deliver at great volume from her front porch. Her statements came to be known as "Exclam's point."
Over the decades, the term evolved into what we now call the exclamation point, a symbol that represents Eunice, who was very skinny and always stood on a ball (!).
(There are conflicting theories that the exclamation point surfaced in the 14th century and was initially known as "punctus admirativus," but that sounds boring.)
Driven to punctuate punctiliously, I consulted a group of language experts who helped me unravel the mystery and workplace merits of this enthusiastic symbol.
"The use of the exclamation point is becoming more and more prevalent as we put more in writing," said Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, a business writing expert and founder of the Washington-based company Syntax Training. "We never speak. Everything is in email. I think we've brought more exclamation points into our writing just because we want to get across the enthusiastic tone that we'd normally communicate on the phone."
Take the word "wonderful."
"That's a word that begs for an exclamation point," Gaertner-Johnston said. "Without one, if we worked together and had some tension in our relationship, I'd say, 'Is he being sarcastic?' We bring exclamations in when we need them to show enthusiasm or excitement or shock or even urgency."
She sees no harm or lack of professionalism in exclamation marks.
"The problem is overusing them," she said. "Unless we're adolescent girls, we should never use more than one in a row. I would suggest that we also don't want to use more than one in a paragraph because we begin to sound goofy in business."
The key, Gaertner-Johnston said, is to consider what the reader needs to understand your message. She suggests writing an email and waiting five minutes. After that, read it aloud: "You might think, 'Wow, I need an exclamation point there because it seems really dull.'"
Anne Trubek, a professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, agrees that the exclamation point has become an important tool for making sure people understand the tone of a comment in an email or text message.
She also thinks the punctuation has become more common as our workplaces have embraced a kinder, gentler attitude.
"We're in a culture now that puts a premium on support and encouragement," Trubek said. "We're all about cheering each other on. There's an emphasis being placed on 'You go!' and 'Congrats!'"
While it's easy to assume laziness behind the use of exclamation points — the idea that we're not taking the time to craft sentences that make our enthusiasm clear — Trubek said it's important to differentiate between business emails and fine literature.
"If you're trying to craft something, it's not the best approach," she said. "But I don't think we're being lazy when we're talking about emails and Twitter and texting, when we're talking about these short bursts where it's really an instrumental communication just to get something across."
Lynne Truss, an English journalist and author of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," said: "My theory is that, as opposed to print letters or typed letters, the way we read electronic media is slightly more inert. I feel people are compensating for that inertness by adding exclamation points. It's sort of shouting. That's why I think I use them."
Rather than start an email with "Dear Rex," Truss is inclined to type "Rex!"
But, she warns, the exclamation point can be a crutch: "It shows, to a certain extent, a lack of confidence in the words. If you feel you need to use emphatic punctuation, that shows that you don't really believe your words will have the impact without them. That's a slight worry."
Whether you like exclamation points or not, they're undoubtedly here to stay, and my guess is the trappings of text messaging (emoticons, LOLs, etc.) will continue to invade business communication as well.
My advice is that, as with all things in life except ice cream, moderation is key. Try to think a moment before using exclamation points. Don't fear them, but enlist them only when they make sense.
Or, as Eunice Exclam used to say from atop her ball on the porch, "WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE ALWAYS ASKING ME SO MANY QUESTIONS?!?!"
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at IJustWorkHere@tribune.com, follow him on Twitter via @RexWorksHere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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