Exclamation Point Etiquette: Please Stop Yelling at Me

Have you ever been at a party and there’s that one girl who is constantly yelling things like, “Oh my god! Shut up!” and “She is such a slut!”? If you despise that girl as much as we at Grammar Cat do, then this is a post you’re going to want to pay attention to, because the written world has “that girl,” too. Only, when it comes to print, it’s not the harpy’s piercing voice that does the damage; it’s the exclamation point.

Don’t be this cat.

The whole “indoor voices” thing we’re taught in elementary school never actually stops being relevant. People who yell all the time will inevitably find themselves alone at some point. In a similar vein, people who use exclamation points all the time will eventually stop being read.

Obviously there’s a reason this punctuation mark was created, but like any good tool, it can be used against its handler fairly easily.

Let’s start off with why it’s useful. The exclamation point is a way for a writer to tell a reader that something is being said emphatically or in a high volume.

Here are some examples of things worth shouting about:

“Either the cat goes or I want a divorce!”

“That kitten is driving a car!”

“Everyone watch out! That cat has a gun!”

These are all things where you would probably be pretty understanding about all the yelling (if not yelling yourself, in the case of the third example). Notice this is all dialogue. Also notice that if this list went on for too much longer, you would probably tire of all the yelling, regardless of if it seemed warranted or not.

Let’s talk about exclamation points in narration. Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t freaking use them.

BUT WHAT IF THE NARRATOR IS YELLING?!

The narrator shouldn’t be yelling. That’s not the narrator’s job. The narrative voice isn’t some sort of warm-up act for the conflict and characters. It doesn’t need to point out things like, The characters’ actions were so zany, guys! If your narrator is doing that, your characters aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if it’s first-cat narration?

If you’re writing first-person narration, you’re probably facing a litter-box load of other challenges, so it may be best to avoid making your narrator “that girl” by having her yell all the time. It doesn’t matter if your narrator is a little unstable, either. Take, for example, the infamous unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield. His narration doesn’t use exclamation points, proving that even a horny sixteen-year-old boy has sense enough to take it easy with the stabbiest of punctuation.

But it isn’t an exclamation point free-for-all when it comes to dialogue. Just like listening to a shouting match in real life is tiring, reading a shouting match in print—and all the !!! that goes along with it—can become stressful and irritating. If you find that your characters are shouting at each other a lot, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Could these characters possibly mix sarcasm or passive aggression into the interaction to avoid all the shouting?
  2. Why do these characters hate each other so much?
  3. Would there have been a wiser place to set the story besides an airplane runway?
  4. Do I, as the author, need too seek help for unresolved conflicts in my life?

But sometimes I get so ANGRY that one exclamation point ISN’T ENOUGH!!!!

If one exclamation point isn’t enough, then it’s time to reword; it’s not time to start tacking on more and more exclamation points. The person who benefits most from this suggestion isn’t the readers but the writer. Once the possibility of more exclamation points is presented, where does an author stop?

“Well, before, the character was angry, so I put one exclamation point, but then he got really angry, so I used two. But now he’s, like, super pissed, so I’m not sure if that’s four exclamation points or five.”

Before you know it, the readers have caught on, too, and are trying to keep track.

“This doesn’t make sense. When his stubbed his toe, he had three exclamation points, but when he told his cheating wife to go to hell, there was only one, even though he was clearly more pissed about his wife than his toe. Only one explanation: TYPO!”

Readers love finding typos.

The exclamation point should be treated like a knife. If you pull it out and start waving it around, people are going to take notice, which can be useful. But don’t pull it out too often or you’ll start to seem reckless and your friends will start avoiding you and having “other plans” every time you want to hit the town. And for god’s sake, don’t give a knife to “that girl.” She’s already had way too much to drink.

I’m so drunk!!!!!!!!!!

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