Missing the Point

Overuse of exclamation points distorts language

It’s happened to everyone, be it when you fill out a survey for a thesis writer, send in a missing form, or remind someone about tomorrow’s meeting. The responses come uniformly back: “Thanks!!!” You have to wonder: is the responder really as excited about answering as they sound? In any case, ending ordinary e-mail or text message correspondences in this manner has become increasingly normal. However, it illustrates a dangerous trend in punctuation: the overuse of the exclamation point. Although the more frequent use of this point may appear to just be a better representation of our own exuberance, the consequences of this trend include misrepresentations of our meanings and emotions.

Exclamation points are an important piece of our written language, and they are perfect when we want to describe something that we would say in a raised voice. Dickens used it quintessentially when the Ghost of Christmas Present bellows, “Come In! And know me better, man!” as did Orwell when he described the chanting of the sheep in “Animal Farm.” However, in simple dialogue we rarely need it. But because the practice of using exclamation points in casual e-mail and text conversations has become so common, now, not adding this punctuation mark to the end of a message makes it seem sullen and ungrateful. Simply ending with “thanks” no longer cuts it, although in most cases such an ending would most accurately describe our emotion; we rarely scream the word “thanks” when an act being rewarded is less-than-heroic. The misuse of this punctuation mark has spiraled even beyond the single exclamation point; since one represents the standard suffix to a message, you now have to put two or three extra points to show actual excitement or pleasure. Indulging this cultural norm incites a positive feedback system, with more and more exclamation points needed to show the same level of emotion, akin to an addict needing more of a stimulant to get the same lift.

Although using more exclamation points may not drastically affect us, it does provide an example of the growing body of ways in which we misrepresent our feelings through writing. How often does a response of “LOL” actually correspond to laughing out loud, or “OMG” to a legitimately shocking event? Taken together these phrases indicate a pattern of falsely self-representing oneself as being in a heightened emotional state. Perhaps overcompensation of emotion in these electronic messages stems from the lessening of actual human contact we experience over digital mediums. In any case, our communications, in almost every occasion, become more exclamatory than the real life interaction would be. Rather than having writing serve as a true means of expression when we are physically out of reach, these threads operate with different meanings and usages, providing a picture of a different self.

So the next time you are writing an e-mail and want to throw on some exclamation points for good measure, consider what that real-life situation would entail. Would you yell your response the same way you are writing it? Thanks!

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.