Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a self-satisfied chuckle), “Using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Like much of his work, this statement was unoriginal; numerous sources attribute it to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it’s true that there’s something self-serving about what copy editors call the bang character.
Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), exclamation points were originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense—”That’s the biggest wart I’ve ever seen!”—as well as to sarcasm and warnings.
The recent trend toward overuse might have started with Tom Wolfe, who (if Trivial Pursuit is to be believed) employed 2,343 of them in his blockbuster “Bonfire of the Vanities.” It’s gotten a huge boost from email and text messaging, where multiple bangs are routinely used to turn up the volume.
In response, editors have begun cautioning writers to use exclamation points sparingly, if at all. “When I was at Conde Nast, an editor told me I was allowed one exclamation point a year. I’ve gone on to make that demand of anyone who contributes to our site,” says Susan Farewell, editor of FarewellTravels.com.
“Good writers convey tone and emphasis through their words, not their punctuation,” agrees Richard Altman. “As a public relations writer, I have to be especially careful not to overhype my clients or I’ll lose credibility.”
It’s important to remember that exclamation points express emotion; they’re the written equivalent of a raised voice. How emotional do you want your writing to be? People who get excited about every little thing are perceived as flighty and unprofessional, and those who never show sparks seem dull and plodding.
Here are sensible guidelines for the use of exclamation points in business:
1. Use sparingly. “Overuse pretty much renders exclamation marks useless,” says marketing writer Amy Goodfellow Wagner. “They’re supposed to add punch, but sprinkling them too liberally dilutes the intended effect.” This is especially true when the preceding statement is positive. “I can’t wait to see the website” or “It was a pleasure meeting you” sound enthusiastic enough without gilding the lily.
There’s one exception to this rule: Using certain exclamatory words without an exclamation point can sound sarcastic or derisive. Compare “Well, that’s fabulous.” with “Well, that’s fabulous!”
2. One is enough.Multiple exclamation points suggest that you are really worked up—they’re the verbal equivalent of hitting someone over the head. The result is annoying at best and toxic at worst. Statements like, “I can’t believe your team missed the deadline!!!” signal the end of professional discourse.
3. Don’t combine with other punctuation marks. Every now and then, someone suggests putting an exclamation point next to a question mark to create the graphic equivalent of “WTF.” It’s even got a name: the interrobang. Like WTF and its close relative LMAO, it doesn’t belong in business writing.
4. Consider the context. The more casual the form of communication—text messages, friendly emails and blog posts—the more flexible your writing can be. Keep it formal for proposals, company memos and correspondence that’s strictly business.
5. Get personal.Sometimes it’s appropriate to exhibit a personal interest—say, when a co-worker has a baby or gets an award. “Exclamation points communicate emotions that we normally rely on vocal intonations or facial expressions to convey,” says Elaine Van S. Carmichael, president of Economic Stewardship.
6. Share your enthusiasm. As long as they’re sincerely meant, very few people would object to the use of exclamation points in the following statements: “Great job!” “You’re amazing!” “Well done!” In this context, they’re the equivalent of a round of applause—something we could all use more of.
Deborah Gaines is a business writer and former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer.