A few weeks ago, I was trying to figure out a happy hour destination with a good friend who was in town for a short time. Every suggestion I sent was met with, “Sure” or “Okay,” unaccompanied by any punctuation. After a few rounds of this, I got pretty annoyed. Why does she seem so unenthusiastic? Does she even want to meet up with me?
After a minute, I realized why the interaction bothered me: My friend didn’t use a single exclamation point(!). The exclamation mark, once reserved for expressing joy or excitement, now simply marks baseline politeness (a fact brilliantly expressed by an Onion article headlined, “Stone-Hearted Ice Witch Forgoes Exclamation Point”), and when we see a text or email that lacks it, we instinctively wonder what’s up. This is partly explained, research suggests, by the fact that it’s a lot harder to get across tone in written conversation — particularly when it’s abbreviated — as compared to vocalized interaction.
I was curious about this tidal shift in grammatical norms, so I emailed Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and one of the internet’s go-to sources for addressing grammar and punctuation problems, figuring she would set me straight and offer up some stern but compassionate guidelines about proper punctuation usage.
She did anything but!
“Exclamation points are becoming the standard after salutations and happy or eager statements such as ‘I'm looking forward to seeing you,’” she said in an email to Science of Us. “It almost seems mandatory in e-mail.”
Well, okay. “Mandatory” for anyone who still doesn't know exactly what a semicolon is for, but surely not for someone who makes a living explaining good grammar to others?
Nope. Even she is not immune. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period.” This has caused her some angst: “Sometimes I'm in such a quandary that I put them in and take them out and put them in again, but if I weren't Grammar Girl and I didn't think my writing was being scrutinized, I'm sure I'd use them liberally without a second thought.”
So relax, everyone! Exclamation marks are totally normal! Though I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a single one in Fogarty’s email. The gall!