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Use of the Exclamation Point Has Exploded!

exclamation placards, European Parliament
European deputies hold up placards bearing an exclamation mark during a 2013 session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, to protest a modification in the Hungarian constitution to reinforce the power of the government. FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images

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Not too long ago, exclamation points were scorned as silly punctuation marks largely employed by excited teenage girls or inexperienced novelists having trouble conveying emotions otherwise. But today, exclamation points are everywhere. Just check your email, text messages or social media accounts. Exclamation points abound. What accounts for this explosion, and is it a good thing?

No one knows for sure who invented the exclamation mark, although it was introduced into English as far back as the late 14th century (and was poetically called "the point of admiration"). One common theory is that it was derived from the Latin exclamation of joy, which was "IO," with the "I" written above the "O" – the look of today's exclamation point. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century lexicographer, was the person who coined the word "exclamation" for sentences that were "pathetical" or full of emotion.

Grammatically speaking, an exclamation point is supposed to be used in just one of two ways – to punctuate an exclamatory sentence ("I can't find my wallet!") or to punctuate an interjection ("Hurray!"). While exclamation marks have long been scorned in formal writing, throughout the centuries people regularly used them in personal correspondence. And in the late 19th century, yellow journalists and sensationalists often incorporated the startling marks – which printers called screamers, shrieks or bangs – into their work.

During the 20th century, use of the exclamation point calmed down. In fact, while the typewriter was invented in the late 1800s, the exclamation point wasn't given its own key until 1970. The reason was people weren't expected to use it in professional writing. An exclamation point was created by typing a period, backspacing, then typing an apostrophe on top of it. But around the end of the 20th century, when the internet and texting became widespread (followed by social media a decade later), exclamation points began popping up everywhere, and in great numbers.

Why the Internet Needs the Exclamation Point

Experts say the reason for the increase is that people began communicating predominantly through electronic means versus personal encounters. When we speak with people face to face, we use visual and audio cues to help determine the meaning behind their words. Think of the difference when someone says "great idea" with sincerity and a smile versus with sarcasm and an eye-roll. When these cues are lost, as happens during electronic communication, something else must be used to help determine intent – like the exclamation point.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch noted in an article in The Atlantic that the exclamation point today is used as a sincerity marker, not an intensity marker. "If I end an email with 'Thanks!,' I'm not shouting or being particularly enthusiastic; I'm just trying to convey that I'm sincerely thankful, and I'm saying it with a bit of a social smile," she said.

This is especially true for women. Research shows females use exclamation marks more than males in online communications, and the reason is to show friendliness. Leave one off, and message recipients may view you as rude, cold or harsh.

Rachel George, an assistant professor at Washington's Whitman College, teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. She says the rise in the usage, and possible overusage, of the exclamation point isn't surprising, because all punctuation is flexible when it comes to social media. "Because of the way [electronic communication] represents a combination of the written and spoken word, punctuation becomes much more about the aesthetic and the emotional," she says, and not strictly about grammatical correctness.

She also notes that the rise of the exclamation point may be tied to the fact that research indicates young women and young people of color are linguistic innovators. During the linguistic innovation process, aspects of a new speaking style are initially vilified. Recall how people made fun of Valley Girl speech in the 1980s, with its overuse of the word "like" and its rise in pitch at the end of sentences. Yet today, aspects of "Valleyspeak" are widespread. So, if young women began peppering their texts, emails and social media posts with exclamation points a decade ago, that may help explain their ubiquity now.

Another possible reason we're seeing so many screamers may be the need for speed, according to researchers. We're communicating via the written word more than ever before, and in short bursts. Sometimes an exclamation point comes in handy as shorthand for a few words or sentences we don't have time to write.

While exclamation points are still frowned upon in some contexts (think college term papers), one study showed companies using exclamation marks on their LinkedIn messages received 26 percent more clicks on their business-to-business channels and 27 percent more clicks on their business-to-consumer ones.

Despite all of this exclamation point positivity, there is a limit to their usage. In the business world, people who use a lot of exclamation points in messages are more likely to be seen as underlings than supervisors, according to at least one study. And when it comes to posting negative online reviews, using too many exclamation points causes people to discredit your review – unless you're an expert in the subject matter, according to another study. Then, exclamation points carry more weight.

In the end, time will tell whether high exclamation point usage is here to stay (linguistic innovation!) or just a passing fad (so sorry!)

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