I feel quite sorry for the exclamation mark. When I was taught how to read and write it was enjoying a leisurely existence, rarely being called upon to do any work. One would use it merely to exclaim, such as:
I can’t ever remember using one in a scholarly essay, letter (either formal or informal), business document or anywhere else. I suppose I must have used one occasionally but it was infrequent.
Then along came the internet and the poor exclamation mark has to start working overtime. I’ve seen electronic communications in which there are more exclamation marks that there are all other characters combined, such as:
See you tomorrow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Does the fact that someone will see me tomorrow need exclaiming at all, let alone 35 times? Or is this person shouting? If so, why? Or is it a joke? Hopefully it is and they won’t turn up.
Let’s look at what the various grammar guides say about the exclamation mark.
The Oxford English Dictionary thinks it should be used for exclamations (obviously), to indicate shouting and to show that the writer finds something funny or ironic.
Merriam-Webster defines it as:
a mark ! used especially after an interjection or exclamation to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling
And Collins defines it as:
An exclamation mark is the sign ! which is used in writing to show that a word, phrase, or sentence is an exclamation.
I normally have a preference for the OED in these matters but I like the Collins definition here. It’s a concise, mildly eponymous definition that sums things up nicely. The word ‘exclamation’ itself is further defined by Collins as:
an abrupt, emphatic, or excited cry or utterance; interjection; ejaculation
I quite like that too, so I’m sticking with Collins here.
It seems the OED has gone over to the Dark Side and encapsulated the common internet trend of using an exclamation mark to “show that the writer finds something funny or ironic”, and I really can’t be doing with that. First of all, you’re laughing at your own jokes, which is simply not cricket and, second, I suspect most offenders use it mainly to make sure the reader is aware the writer is making a joke, out of the fear they may take something the wrong way.
My take on this is that a writer would be better off either writing more clearly or providing some context to indicate humour. Once that’s satisfactorily achieved, if the reader is still too stupid to understand it’s a joke then that’s their problem. They are beyond help and for your own safety you should never communicate with them again.
Whatever you use the exclamation mark for, it certainly shouldn’t be out of laziness. If you can’t be bothered to think a bit more about your writing, just don’t write at all.
Don’t get me wrong, we all make mistakes with writing — I make many. Where these mistakes are accidental they are entirely forgivable. But deliberately using an exclamation mark simply because you can’t be bothered to try and write coherently shows a lack of respect for the reader.
I have heard many people argue that you can’t see a person’s face over the internet and you need to tell someone when you’re joking. This is unabridged poppycock. Authors can’t see the faces of the people they’re writing for but you don’t see them splattering exclamation marks all over the page. Or at least the good ones don’t. Yet you still know when a joke is being made.
One thing that is certainly never right in any circumstances is the use of multiple consecutive exclamation marks (yes but my joke is really, really, really funny). Offenders should be punished by having their fingers amputated, one for each exclamation mark they use.
If you must use exclamation marks, use them liberally. Work on the basis that 99% of the things you write won’t need an exclamation mark at all and then people will notice when you really do exclaim. Overuse of the exclamation mark diminishes its effect. It’s a bit like swearing; if a person rarely swears, people notice when he tells them to fuck off.