Editors typically frown on the excessive use of the exclamation mark. Some go as far as to argue it shouldn’t be used at all. So, what’s the deal? How did we start using it in the first place? The English Project has some interesting things to say on the subject.
In 1551, John Hart, making a list of the major English punctuation marks, included one that he called the wonderer. He meant what we now call the exclamation mark. Ben Jonson, England’s greatest punctuator, gave it a similar name calling it the admiration mark. In Jonson’s time, it was also called a shriek and a screamer. Since then, it has been called a bang, a boing, a gasper, a pling, a slammer, and a Christer.
You may notice a pattern here: from a rather good start, this punctuation mark has been given less and less respectful names.
Whatever the name, aging typists will remember that on many machines they had to type a full stop, back space and type an apostrophe to type an exclamation.
Writers of Cambridge research papers are being warned against the everyday exclamation used to add excitement – a use generally thought to be lamentable. Oxford says: ‘Avoid overusing the exclamation mark for emphasis.’ Notwithstanding Oxbridge strictures, exclamations are hugely used in Internet English where they take on aspects of the hysterical, the desperate and the psychotic. Death threats are probably rightly supported by multiple exclamations, but death threats themselves should be avoided where possible.
Multiplying exclamation marks might be expected to increase the power of the exclamation, but additional marks merely increase the pitch. Gasping gives way to shouting and shouting to shrieking. As sopranos know, above high C, the vowels sound alike; verbal communication becomes impossible. As novelists know, intensifiers weaken: the more exclamation, the less impact. Cambridge dislikes one; it hates two, three, or four!!!! The law of diminishing returns applies.
And yet, the solitary exclamation mark appearing on road signs says to drivers ‘Look Out’. Operating like that the exclamation becomes a logotype: ‘a single piece of type that prints a word’. Logotypes in common use are @, £, $, &, #, *. Combining logotypes produces comic effects: ‘@*!£!&#!’ The suggestion is of anything from losing consciousness to unprintable swearing, but the full effect requires the presence of exclamation marks.
Moreover, the exclamation mark can make a sentence out of any word: “Oy!” Or, “Yolo!”
Exclamations are common in the names of films and shows: ‘Jeopardy!’, ‘Shindig!’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Oh! Calcutta!’, ‘Airplane!’, ‘Moulin Rouge!’.
Two people at least have taken advantage of the adventitious excitement of the exclamation to add them to their own names. Elliot S! Maggin made his name writing Superman stories for DC Comics. Scott Shaw! is making his name, says Wikipedia, as an ‘actor, author, film director, film producer, journalist, martial artist, musician, photographer, and professor’ – a list as impressive as Shaw!. Mind you, it is unlikely that exclamations would appear in any court summons addressed to either Maggin or Shaw.
Exclamations make other unexpected appearances. Spaces get lost and apostrophes are shed in place names, but exclamation marks are added. In 1855, Charles Kingsley published ‘Westward Ho!’, an exciting yarn of Elizabethan mariners. It was a huge success and fired up young men. Kingsley’s inspiration was the Crimean War.
Following the success of Kingsley’s novel, the name was given to a seaside hotel in Devon. The hotel became a village, and the exclamation was given official place-name recognition. Two further place names, at least, have followed that lead: Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Canada, and Hamilton! in the United States. Until their local authorities think better of it, these places will remain exclaimed.
You can read the whole post on the English Project.