Although no one really knows where the exclamation mark originated, Rose Eveleth, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, explains, “The current running theory is that it comes from Latin. In Latin, the exclamation of joy was io, where the i was written above the o.” Use of the punctuation mark dates from the 15th century.
For a long time, this punctuation mark was used sparingly—in the pre-computer age, typewriters didn’t even have a key for it—but, these days, we’re in the midst of exclamation inflation. The rate of exclamation mark usage keeps increasing as time passes.
In an article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck describes the situation:“This sort of inflation is a natural linguistic phenomenon that regularly happens to words, like how awesome was once reserved for that which truly struck awe into a quavering heart and is now scarcely more than a verbal thumbs up.”
In the past, an exclamation mark only indicated extreme enthusiasm, but today people apply the punctuation mark with wild abandon.
So, you may be wondering, what do the grammar guides say?
On Twitter, @APStylebook advises: “Avoid overuse of exclamation points. Use to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.”
In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White insist that simple statements don’t need an exclamation mark. Instead, “the exclamation mark is to be reserved for after true exclamations and commands.”
Of course, try telling that to your coworkers and friends! The modern trend of overusing exclamation marks probably isn’t going to subside anytime soon.
One of the common placements for an exclamation mark is at the end of an exclamatory sentence.
Merriam-Webster defines exclamatory as, “containing, expressing, using, or relating to exclamation.” Basically, this means that an exclamatory sentence contains a sudden utterance or a vehement complaint.
So, perhaps this circular logic is a reason for the overuse of exclamation marks. If a sentence ends in an exclamation point, it’s exclamatory. If a sentence is exclamatory, it should end in an exclamation point.
The only thing differentiating an exclamatory sentence from a regular sentence, aside from punctuation, has to do with its suddenness and vehemence.
Exclamation points also punctuate some imperative sentences. When you issue a command, a request, or some kind of instruction, you use an imperative sentence to do so.
Here’s an example:
Fetch me my coffee!
As you can see, an exclamation point fits nicely. It communicates that the imperative is being yelled or forcefully conveyed. Not all imperative sentences end with exclamation marks, but they tend to work well with the content of most imperative sentences.
Go jump off a bridge if you disagree!
Another great use case for an exclamation mark is an interjection. These are grammatically independent words or phrases that communicate a range of different emotions, from surprise to joy to anger. You can even express irony with an interjection.
Here’s a list of some common interjections:
The list can go on and on.
Interjections can also work well with an interrobang, which is a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point. For example, you could write:
With an interrobang, these interjections would have a different meaning than if you used an exclamation point alone. With the interrobang, you’re expressing curiosity, confusion, or some other complex combination of emotions.
The English town of Westward Ho! is an example of a proper noun written with an exclamation point. Some brand names and titles also use this device.
Here are a few examples:
When Should You Not Use Exclamation Points?
In her autobiography, journalist Sheilah Graham credited F. Scott Fitzgerald with this bit of wisdom:
“Cut out all these exclamation points…An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
Frequent use of the exclamation mark should be avoided. Even if you feel genuine enthusiasm, using too many exclamation points can end up communicating the opposite sentiment. By writing a letter or email loaded with exclamation marks, you may appear to lack sincerity.
Reserve the punctuation mark for those times when you’re making an emphatic declaration, yelling, or expressing an extreme emotion.
Using Multiple Exclamations
Generally, it’s best to avoid multiple exclamation marks in formal text. One mark already communicates extreme emotion or yelling, so there’s no need to pile them on.
In informal writing, multiple exclamation marks may be used to convey sarcasm or extra-loud yelling. Some people also use multiple marks in online communication, letters, and other informal notes to express friendliness.
Using an Exclamation Mark with Quotations
When you use an exclamation mark with quotations, you need to think about whether or not the exclamation is part of the quote. If it forms part of the quotation, the punctuation should fall inside the closing quotation mark.
“I’d love to!” she added.
In this example, the exclamation is part of a sentence the speaker is yelling, so the mark goes inside the quotation. There’s no need for a comma; the exclamation mark stands alone.
Sing “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude”!
Here, you write the names of the songs inside the quotation marks. Since the whole sentence is exclamatory, the exclamation point goes at the very end. On the other hand, if a title contains an exclamation mark, then you would write the title’s exclamation mark inside the quotations.
Sing “Stop!” and “Hey Jude”!
The same logic applies when you use parentheses. If the parenthetical word or phrase contains the exclamation, then you include the mark within the parenthesis. In contrast, if the entire sentence is an exclamation, you would place the exclamation point at the end of the sentence.
Note that you never insert a space between the last letter of the word and the exclamation mark.
Exclamation Marks Before Computers
Before the popularization of computers in the 1970s, typewriters and keyboards didn’t have a separate key for an exclamation mark. That gives you some indication of how rarely they were used.
If you ever come across an old typewriter, you can include this punctuation mark by typing a period, using the backspace key, and then typing an apostrophe as a substitute for the vertical line.
‘”The single exclamation mark is being used not as an intensity marker, but as a sincerity marker,’” says Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who studies online communication. ‘If I end an email with “Thanks!,” I’m not shouting or being particularly enthusiastic; I’m just trying to convey that I’m sincerely thankful, and I’m saying it with a bit of a social smile.'” —The Atlantic, “Read This Article!!!”
Kevin Miller is a growth marketer with an extensive background in Search Engine Optimization, paid acquisition and email marketing. He is also an online editor and writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He studied at Georgetown University, worked at Google and became infatuated with English Grammar and for years has been diving into the language, demystifying the do's and don'ts for all who share the same passion! He can be found online here.