The Use and Abuse of Exclamation Points

There seem to be several conversations happening online over the proper use of exclamation points. While I am by no means qualified to offer expert advice, my personal preference is to use them sparingly. My opinion isn’t based on the rules of grammar, but an impression left on me as a kid by a series of comic books.

Allow me to throw in a quick caveat and state that this is purely anecdotal. My memory could be faulty here. That’s why I’m not going to name the comic, or the creators involved. The facts aren’t the point; if they were, I’d have done the research before posting this. It’s about how I remember something, how that made me feel, and the way it continues to affect my writing.

There was a comic book artist in the 1970s who isn’t widely remembered today. A serviceable illustrator, not bad but not earth-shattering. His claim to fame seemed to be that he could handle a large cast of characters and make each one distinctive. He also did his own lettering on the books, which was unusual at the time. Maybe I’m not remembering that correctly, but I read a lot of comics in the 70’s, and only remember this happening in the books that he drew.

Exclamation Points!

Every single sentence ended in an exclamation point. Boxed captions, word balloons, and even thought bubbles were all exclamations. Imagine your inner monologue, constantly shouting. The only exceptions were for question marks. I don’t recall ever seeing a period, and I read this book for years. It made dialogue weird. Even as a kid, I found it strange. In a superhero fight, sure, I accept people yelling. Casual conversations, though, had the characters amped up and way too excited. My name is Fred Johnson! Pleased to meet you! Let’s go get something to eat! I’ll buy these flowers for my wife!

Because I was a kid, I accepted it as a stylistic quirk. The book was otherwise enjoyable, and the odd choice of punctuation wasn’t a deal breaker. It has made me question my own use of exclamation points ever since. Never in technical writing. Selectively in copywriting, when humor, irony, or intentional tackiness is present. In fiction I use them exclusively in dialogue, and it has to reflect what’s happening. Rarely in an article or blog post. There’s not much call for that level of exuberance, even in comic books.

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