A December blog post seems the perfect opportunity to wish you ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Holidays!’ (depending on your beliefs or lack of), and also to reflect on the use and overuse of the exclamation mark. According to some sources1, it originated in the Latin term ‘io’, meaning ‘joy’, placed by medieval scribes at the end of a sentence much as we’d use an emoji today, with the ‘o’ then moving below the ‘I’ and becoming a dot. This makes the exclamation mark ideally suited to expressing festive delight, as in ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Joy to the world; the Lord is come!’
Shakespeare referred to it as ‘a note of admiration’ (1611), with writers shortly afterwards using the terms ‘note of exclamation’ and ‘exclamation note’2, indicating that it could already be used to express emotions other than joy. Charles Dickens is a renowned enthusiast of punctuation marks in general, and of the exclamation mark in particular, with A Christmas Carol (1843) containing 1,351 of them per 100,000 words – equivalent to five or six per page.3
However, the exclamation mark didn’t have its own key on the typewriter until the early 1970s4, and its introduction may have been the beginning of a slippery slope. These days it seems to be used everywhere and anywhere, often to make a piece of writing sound more ‘fun’ than it really is, in sentences that are not exclamations, such as ‘You could record your presentation on your mobile phone!’ or ‘Try to think of at least three examples!’ In these instances, I tend to agree with F Scott Fitzgerald that ‘An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.’5
So what exactly does count as an exclamation? Well, making a joke is one legitimate use of the mark, as is expressing surprise, delight or anger, or shouting for any reason. There also seems to be a tacit understanding that you should use either one or three, with three being too informal for academic or literary writing, except in quoted speech.
Incidentally, Dickens has been variously praised and mocked for his idiosyncratic use of colons in A Christmas Carol (from the very first sentence: ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’)6 – but colons can be the topic of a future blog post. In the meantime: Merry Christmas!, Happy New Year! and Have a joyous festive season!
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