Stop the madness! Rules for using the exclamation point

It is easily the most overused and abused punctuation mark in the English language. Here’s how you should be employing it. (Hint: Sparingly.)


A recent study reported on PR Daily found that “43 percent of online daters consider bad grammar a ‘major’ turnoff.”

So I think it’s safe to say that bad grammar can affect relationships. And so can punctuation. Does anyone remember the “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine breaks up with her boyfriend over his failure to use an exclamation point?

In case you missed it, Elaine’s boyfriend had written down some phone messages, one of which said that her friend had baby. Elaine found it “curious” that he didn’t think someone having a baby warranted an exclamation point.

“Maybe I don’t use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do,” he quips.

When Elaine later tells Jerry about the break up, he responds: “It’s an exclamation point! It’s a line with a dot under it!”

RELATED: A punctuation mark for the mildly enthused

Oh, no, no, no, Jerry, an exclamation point is so much more than just a line with a dot under it. It is one of the most exploited, abused, overused, and misused punctuation marks in the English language. I can’t count how many times I see an exclamation point after the most mundane statements.

“Thank you for setting up your account with us!”

“Your order has shipped!”

“Laura!”

“I’ll see you at the conference!”

Why all the emphasis? Does anyone remember what we were taught in grade school? “If everything is emphasized, nothing is.” And this is exactly what our style guides tell us.

From the Associated Press Stylebook:

“Emphatic expressions: Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.

“Avoid overuse: Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period.”

Likewise, from The Chicago Manual of Style:

“Use of the exclamation point. An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.”

The American Medical Association Manual of Style—which I use in my day job as a medical writer—takes an even more conservative approach.

“Exclamation points indicate emotion, an outcry, or a forceful comment. Try to avoid their use except in direct quotations and in rare and special circumstances. They are not appropriate in scientific manuscripts and are more common in less formal articles, such as book reviews, editorials, and informal essays, where added emphasis may be appropriate. If they are used, limit their use to one.”

In the words of novelist Elmore Leonard: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

PR Daily readers, care to comment on the use and abuse of this “line with a dot under it”?

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