Punctuation rules are what they’ve always been, with slight variations from age to era. The exclamation point has fallen in and out of favor for good reason. Children are suckers for them: “I do not like green eggs and ham!” Journalists are taught to use them sparingly, if at all. This is because the exclamation point signifies shouting, which obviously can be overdone, and quickly loses its oomph. The exclamation point can also suggest a sort of debutante breathlessness.
Oh, Scarlett! I just love that drapery-dress you stitched together!! Why, how on earth did you ever conceive such a thing!!!???
The South is still largely populated with the overly excited. On any given day, upon running into a friend or acquaintance, it is highly probable that I’ll hear something like: “Heeeeyyyyy!!!! How ARE you???? Oh, my gosh, you look amaaaa-zing!!!!” (Hugging is also very likely.) I don’t mind this much, though if you’re in a room full of such women, you’ll need an exclamation deflector to soften the assault on your eardrums, not to mention your self-respect.
Writing is altogether different, of course, and no good writer, Southern or otherwise, would think of overusing exclamations. It just isn’t done. To exclaim is to seem silly, shallow and self-absorbed, or, conversely, sarcastic, snarky or sneering. Usage is sometimes tricky, which is why: sparingly.
Something has shifted lately, however, and exclamation points suddenly are popping up everywhere! We might as well blame social media since most regrettable trends can be traced back to that which celebrates the silly, the shallow and the self-absorbed, not to mention sarcasm, snark and sneer. Did anyone in particular come thundering to mind?
Bingo! The exclaimer in chief’s Twitter feed is rife with exclamatory pronouncements. “Witch hunt!” “Enemy of the People!” “No collusion!” Of course this president would love exclamatory punctuation, connoting as it does loudness, boldness or, say, a booming voice before a cheering crowd. WINNING! The exclamation point, twin of the UPPERCASE, befits the narcissist who cloaks himself in a veil of superlatives.
It is exhausting and, apparently, infectious. Without pride, I confess that I, too, have begun exclaiming over absolutely nothing for pure effect, mostly to “sound” happy. Admit it: You have, too. And it does seem connected to social media and, perhaps especially, to texting.
As everyone eventually learns, a text can be easily misunderstood. Sometimes this may be a function of a rushed thought carelessly conveyed without attention to tone or mutual context. You know the drill: The recipient of your text completely misinterprets your intent, feelings are hurt, contracts are ripped apart, dates are broken, hearts are rent asunder.
I love texting for the same reasons you do. It’s quick and easy. To pick up the phone and call another human being requires, comparatively, a vast array of resources: a smiling voice, niceties, feigned interest in chitchat and the expenditure of finite reserves of psychic energy. Thus, rather than speak person-to-person, we’ve begun resorting to the exclamation point to serve as our happy-face ambassador.
“Hi!” immediately connotes friendliness and a smile, whereas “Hi” is a mere door-opener, as utilitarian and dour as the messenger who arrives to serve your divorce summons.
This faux friendliness surely portends an insidious trend of trading human communion for convenience and efficiency. Isn’t this, after all, the purpose of all modern technology — and ain’t it great? Between headphones and handheld computers capable of blocking even the periphery of others’ lives, we spin our personal cocoons ever more snugly. Heaven forbid we should make eye contact.
In such a world, insularity is our default mode and the exclamation point our fashionable foil. How long can we sustain this pas de deux of self-inflicted loneliness? Not forever, I suspect. The pendulum eventually reverses course, and soon we’ll be hankering for face-to-face time over FaceTime, a conversation rather than a text, and mayhap a return to saner punctuation.
After all, to exclaim is human. But to end a sentence with a period is divine.