When it comes to the English language, there are three rules that newspaper reporters typically follow:
- Never use an Oxford comma. If you don’t know what that is, I’m reluctant to tell you in case you’ll start using them, but what the heck: An Oxford comma is the comma that sick, twisted minds insert between the second to last and the last item in a string. Example: “I like cats, dogs, and muskrats.” Journalists reading that are recoiling because they prefer Associated Press (AP) style, which eliminates the final comma because, frankly, it’s unnecessary and stupid. English teachers, of course, despise AP style, but they can kiss my semicolon.
- Never ask a question in the lead. (The lead is the first paragraph. Asking a question in the lead is something every rookie reporter tries once.)
- Never – under pain of death or, worse, being growled at by an editor – use an exclamation point.
“You’ll get an exclamation point past me when hell freezes over,” an editor once growled at me. I took him at his word and never tried again.
The reason exclamation points are punctuation non grata in most newsrooms is that reporters are supposed to be impartial about what they’re reporting, and there’s nothing impartial about an exclamation point. An exclamation point takes sides. An exclamation point gushes. An exclamation point is Pandora’s Box – once used, they will only proliferate.
When I was teaching journalism to college freshmen, I used to communicate my disdain for the exclamation point in their copy by circling them with a red grease pencil and writing “No!!!!” Students almost never caught the ironic attempt at humor (freshmen can be kinda thick) but they always got the point: The only acceptable punctuation at the end of a sentence is a period or a question mark.
I bring all of this up because of a recent and wonderful story in The Wall Street Journal about the lowly exclamation point. The writer noticed that exclamation point use is becoming rampant in work emails, so she decided to go a month without using them to see what happened.
“It was not a complete success!” she wrote. “Finding new ways to convey enthusiasm and warmth in email took time and resulted in some cringe-worthy workarounds. My emails on one early-September day concluded variously with ‘Thanks, Kim,’ ‘Thx,’ ‘THANKS’ and once, heartbreakingly, ‘Grazie x1000.’ Ellipses were deployed … suggesting I could not tidily complete a thought … I tried using Gmail’s gumdrop-shaped emoji; did I want my professional aura to be an affable gumdrop?”
Life got easier again, she said, once the experiment was done and she resumed exclamation pointing, writing, “So long as email dominates our work communication, I’ll deploy a ‘Great!’ or ‘Way to go!’ as needed, because tone matters.”
She’s right, of course. Tone does matter. And for that reason, I, too, will continue to use the dreaded exclamation point in work emails, at least until I’ve perfected the new fonts I’ve been working on: sarcasm, sincerity and enthusiasm.
When I do, I’ll not only be rich (who wouldn’t love those, right?). It’ll also allow me to take a screwdriver and pry the exclamation point key from all of my computer keyboards.
And that, my friends, will be a great, great day!