Recently, I was talking to a friend about what I should write about over the holidays. She told me about an Anton Chekhov short story called “The Exclamation Mark” in which Perekladin, a civil servant, is insulted after someone questions his ability to punctuate correctly. Affronted, he heads home and goes to sleep. All of this occurs on Christmas Eve. Can you guess what happens next?
In a parody of “A Christmas Story,” he’s visited by a series of ghostly punctuation marks—commas, colons, semicolons, question marks—all of which he banishes by thinking of appropriate uses for them. But then he’s’ confronted by the exclamation mark. He realizes, to his horror, that he’s never used one. He has no idea what it’s for.
Apparently this sets off an existential crisis for our troubled protagonist as he realizes nothing of any emotional significance has ever happened to him. But that’s not the point of this blog. The point is that, unlike Perekladin, most of us use the exclamation point far too often. So if one punctuation mark has to go, let the exclamation point be that mark.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” And that was at some point before his death in 1940, back when the norm was to use the mark sparingly. Today, it’s all over the place, in headlines, text messages, emails. “I’ll see you at the restaurant at 6!” “Your order has shipped!” “See you at the conference!” Those are just a few examples of sentences with unnecessary exclamation marks that have come my way recently. But the worst—the absolute worst—is the person for whom one exclamation point simply isn’t enough. “I can’t wait to see you!!!!!!!!!!!!” “That’s great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “I’m going to pick up some bread at the store!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (That person also finds it difficult to stop with a single question mark: “Are you coming to dinner tonight???????????????????????”) It reminds me of when colleagues accidentally hit the “caps lock” button before typing an instant message—IT FEELS LIKE THEY’RE SHOUTING AT ME!!!
That’s not to say there aren’t occasions where an exclamation mark is warranted. Did you get your picture taken with Slash? Let someone in on a gridlocked expressway who failed to give you a courtesy wave? Realize that someone finished off that last bag of dangerously cheesy Cheetos? Then, by all means, express that joy, anger, or sadness appropriately. Otherwise, maybe stick with a period.
If you were going to be visited by the specter of a punctuation mark, what would it be, and why?
Word of the Week: Emote
Song of the Week: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Judy Garland