A–Brief–Literary History of the Exclamation Point (!)
How did the exclamation point come to be? How has its use influenced writers throughout time? Read on to discover the robust history of this famous punctuation mark.
Identify the tonal difference in the following sentences:
Ok, I’ll do it!
Ok, I’ll do it.
What about this:
I can’t wait.
I can’t wait!
Pencils down. I would like to you recite both of these sentences out loud and think about the inflection (or lack thereof) that you automatically assign.
Did you find your tone to be more jovial and excited after the sentences with exclamation marks? If so, you’d be right and with it comes the perfect launching point for today’s discussion of the exclamation point.
An often testing topic, the exclamation point may be the most polarizing of all the punctuation that exists in the English language. But how can a simple line and dot combination cause such a stir? For this, we will have to dive into its rich history.
The Smithsonian magazine informs us that the exclamation point has its genesis in an ancient Latin word “io”, invented by Medieval monks who placed the word at the end of a sentence to indicate joy. In Latin “io” means, hurray and overtime the distinct ‘i’ and ‘o’ letters were written with the ‘i’ placed above the ‘o’ until the ‘o’ became indistinguishable from a point.
From there, the meaning of the mysterious point altered further. 15th century printers used the exclamation point as a note of admiration at the conclusion of a sentence, and continuing into the 17th century the punctuation evolved to embody a sense of wonder and awe. This famed symbol would not appear on a keyboard until 1970. If a writer wanted to include it, they would have to go to the trouble of typing a period then entering the backspace key and placing an apostrophe above it!
A Novel Perspective
"An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke." F. Scott Fitzgerald
American writers have historically not been advocates of the exclamation point. F. Scott Fitzgerald is even famous for saying, “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
For being so anti-exclamation point he sure used more than one would think he could bear. Based on research from Ben Blatt, who studied famous novelists and the mechanics of their writing, on average across Fitzgerald’s 4 novels he used approximately 356 exclamation points per 100,000 words.
Fitzgerald was not alone in his sentiment, Mark Twain in his 1897 essay ‘How To Tell A Story’ insists that writers who include ‘whooping exclamation-points’ indicate that they find pleasure in their own humor, ‘all of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.’
*As an ironic side note, it was Twain who is also famous for saying, “substitute ‘damn’ every time you are inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be as it should be.” It looks like someone should be more careful to take their own advice.
Perhaps one of the most tangible examples comes from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea (1952) which tells its story in its entirety by using only one exclamation point. Famous for his terse, simple prose it comes as no surprise that he only used an average of 59 of them across his 10 novels according to Blatt.
The European Difference
With such disdain for a small line accompanied by a tiny dot in the states, I was curious how the same mark fared across the pond. I’d like to remind you that I said this would be a brief literary history and therefore this mini-experiment does have some factors that could not be entirely controlled.
My objective was to ascertain the use of the exclamation point by famous European authors’ most renowned titles. I decided to look at 6 classic novels written in the 19th century (1800-1900): Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Great Expectations. Each novel is written by a different person and there are 3 female writers and 3 male writers. I combed through the first chapter of each novel which ranged from 10-13 pages each to evaluate the author’s use of the exclamation point.
Let’s see the results!
As you can see, the lowest use of the exclamation point is 6 times per chapter with the highest being from Dumas at 20. The exclamation point clearly did not scare the writers of the 19th century, rather it would seem that they embraced them. This data shows that the exclamation point is not loathed by all authors and that many famous novelists (most European) used it in prolific ways.
Even in the 21st century a massive debate exists over the use and overuse of the exclamation. One key reason for its existence ties back to the exercise I had you do at the beginning of this post: affect and tone.
With so many of our conversations occurring through a screen, the difficulty of conveying the nuance of personality becomes exponentially higher. Many brand writers, copywriters, and bloggers alike use the exclamation as their tool to portray genuine excitement for a space, product, or issue. One digital content specialist said that “I don’t use them [!] a lot, but I’m not stingy about them either. They can add personality and help when making a point.”
While I am sure that the long honored exclamation debate will continue, one thing is for sure, they infuse our daily communication and shape the way we interact with everyone, everyday.