September and the Exclamation

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. From a rather good start, this punctuation mark has been given less and less respectful names.

The exclamation mark is ‘rarely needed or acceptable in scientific texts,’ says a Cambridge research guide. However, the same guide less than twenty pages later lists the exclamation as a mathematical symbol to be used to indicate the complete multiplication of a descending sequence of natural numbers. 52! = 52x51x50x49x[…]x3x2x1.  If you are a reading mathematical formula out loud, you will say, when you come upon ‘52!’: ‘fifty-two factorial’, ‘fifty-two shriek’, or ‘fifty-two bang’. (52! is a number so huge that you could shriek (i.e., shuffle) a pack of cards for the entire history of the universe without getting a repeated ordering.) The exclamation mark does appear in scientific texts, but that ‘bang’ suggests a mathematical knowingness about the vulgarity of the shriek.

In comic books, exclamation marks figure large and multi-coloured. They float above the heads of characters recently amazed, dazed or assaulted. Coming out of guns, they represent explosions. That probably accounts for the mark’s being called ‘a bang’ by mathematicians and programmers.

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!’ ‘Life!’ ‘Leg!’.

Writers of Cambridge research papers are not being warned against the factorial exclamation. They are being warned against the everyday exclamation used to express excitement or added to add excitement. The latter use is 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.

Paradoxically, there is some evidence that exclamation marks may sometimes be used to reduce the impact of what is being said. Women have been accused of using exclamation marks more then men, with an implication that that results from the greater excitability of women. In a study of gender and exclamations, Carol Waseleski argues that ‘exclamation points rarely function as markers of excitability.’ However, they ‘may function as markers of friendly interaction, a finding with implications for understanding gender styles in email and other forms of computer-mediated communication.’

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.

New York, in the form of the MLA Handbook, follows the Cambridge research guide, almost to the letter, saying: ‘Except in direct quotation, avoid exclamation points in research writing’. The great Cambridge Copy-editing for Editors, Authors and Publishers has nothing at all to say about the exclamation. That is overdoing disapproval, and gloomy warnings betray what many think are the cheerful origins of the exclamation mark. Innumerable websites say the following: ‘The initial configuration of the exclamation point, which is descended from a logotype for the Latin word io (“joy”), was a capital “I” set over a lowercase “o”.’ (The original source of this information remains to be found.)

The suggestion that monks gave expression to bursts of happiness with ejaculations of the Oh-joy kind when they copied some particularly felicitous passage smacks of the folk story. It might be true, and it would be nice if it were true. And, if true, the monkish mode of fashioning the exclamation mark had a revival during the period of the mechanical typewriter. 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.

Exclamations are common in the names of films and shows: ‘Jeopardy!’, ‘Shindig!’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Oh! Calcutta!’, ‘Airplane!’, ‘Moulin Rouge!’. In the raucous business of show business nominal exclamations provoke no surprise, but in the sober business of business proper, they provoke anger. Joomla!, Yahoo!, Yum! are among companies that have decided that their foolish names could be improved by an exclamation mark. Yum! has so upset The Economist that the journal refuses to print the ‘!’. It calls the company (a Chinese one) Yum. Yahoo, too, loses its exclamation. London’s Companies House has a similar policy, refusing to recognise exclamation marks in the registration of company names.

Foolish as it may seem to add an exclamation to a company name, 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!. 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. ‘Thou too shalt forth, and westward ho, beyond thy wildest dreams; and see brave sights, and do brave deeds,’ Kingsley told them. Kingsley’s inspiration was the Crimean War. Eastward Ho! does not have the same ring so Westward Ho! became the rage. 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.

Generally, the exclamation mark has a poor reputation and its use discouraged, but its shock factor harnessed to good effect in a way suggested by an old Continental practice. The German epistolary salutation used to be followed by an exclamation mark: ‘Sehr geehrter Herr!’. Today, that has given way to ‘Sehr geehrter Herr,’. However, it could well be adopted in letters to English-language newspapers. ‘Dear Sir!’ would give fair warning to the weak-minded to read no further. 

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Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In October, the English Project will tell the story of the Apostrophe.

NB: National Punctuation Day--24 September. See www.nationalpunctuationday.com/.

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