Note: Many of the terms used in this excerpt are rooted in British usage, not American. See more: Why Are British and American English Different?
No other punctuation mark has attracted such criticism in modern times as the exclamation mark. The antagonism isn’t restricted to pedantic stylists. Some very well-known authors have taken against them. Mark Twain opens his essay ‘How to Tell a Story’ (1897) by warning comic writers against the depressing habit of shouting at the reader, including the use of ‘whooping exclamation-points’, which, he says, makes him ‘want to renounce joking and lead a better life’. And there’s a much-quoted remark attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald: ‘Cut out all these exclamation points’, adding ‘An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.’ Repeated marks attract particular criticism. One of the characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Eric (1990) insists that ‘Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.’
Exclamation marks are unavoidable these days. They litter our roads, warning of danger ahead. They alert us to urgent electronic messages. They appear as an identity mark above a character’s head in some video games. And they are there in all sorts of specialized settings, such as mathematics, computer languages, and Internet slang. In phonetics, the mark is a symbol representing an alveolar click sound (as in tut tut). In comics, it usually shows a character’s surprise or shock, often by the symbol appearing alone in a bubble, in varying sizes (depending on the intensity of the moment). In chess notation, along with the question mark it is part of a family of semantic contrasts: ! indicates a good move; !! a brilliant move; ?! a dubious move; and !? an interesting but risky move.
The dangers of superficial generalizations become apparent when we consider the range of meanings that an exclamation can convey: apology, challenge, agreement, call to action, statement of fact, friendship, argument, hostility, sarcasm, thanks … the list seems endless. Here’s a short selection of contexts where the mark would beroutinely used these days:
• interjections – Oh!
• expletives – Drat!
• greetings – Happy Xmas!
• calls – Johnny!
• commands – Stop!
• expressions of surprise – What a mess!
• emphatic statements – I want to see you now!
• attention-getters – Listen carefully!
• loud speech in dialogue – I’m in the garden!
• ironic comments – He paid, for a change! or … for a change (!)
• strong mental attitudes – ‘Hardly!’ he thought
A complete list of situations would be impossibly long, as it would need to identify all the emotions that could motivate the use of the mark. But the last two contexts show how easy it is to make a false generalization, such as ‘exclamations show that the speech is louder.’ There’s no sound at all in the last example.
One of the main indications of the ambiguity surrounding the use of the exclamation mark is its overlap with the question mark. It’s an ambiguity within grammar as well as punctuation, and in speech as well as writing, reflected in such utterances as ‘Are you asking me or telling me?’ Sometimes the answer is ‘both’: a person can query and be surprised at the same time. This is what led to the typographical experiment to devise a new combined mark. Martin K Speckter, an ad man with a strong personal interest in typography, suggested it in an article in Type Talks in 1962. He had noticed that copywriters often used the two marks in the sequences ?! and !? and thought it would be useful to link them into a single symbol ‽. What to call the new mark? Suggestions included ‘emphaquest’, ‘interrapoint’, ‘exclarogative’, ‘consternation mark’, ‘exclamaquest’, and other blends, but the one he chose (incorporating an earlier slang term for an exclamation) was interrobang. It attracted a flurry of interest, but not enough to change traditional printing practices, and it largely disappeared from view during the 1970s. However, it is still encountered as a cult usage online, and it even exists as a Unicode character, so it may yet have a future. In the meantime we are left with the two old stalwarts, the exclamation mark and the question mark.
DAVID CRYSTAL is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. His many books range from clinical linguistics to the liturgy and Shakespeare. He is the author of The Story of English in 100 Words and Spell It Out: The Singular History of English Spelling, both published by Profile. His Stories of English is a Penguin Classic. He lives in the United Kingdom.