Do you feel confident with a comma? Confused by the semicolon? How do you feel about exclamation points? Did you know that most typewriters didn’t have an exclamation point 50 years ago? (How did anyone convey their enthusiasm in writing before 1970?!)
Odd as it may seem, punctuation has been in the news lately, with heated debates about the exclamation point — or the sudden proliferation of that mark — as well as considerable praise and consternation for the em dash (featured in this sentence between the words “point” and “or”).
Do you pay attention to punctuation in your writing for school? How about within your texts or emails? Do you have a favorite mark?
In “Where Do We Stand on the Exclamation Point?,” Emma Goldberg writes:
Meredith Golden says that finding your soulmate on Tinder is easy, as long as you swear off one vice. It isn’t cigarettes or cheese fries. It’s slimmer, sneakier. That cardinal sin: the exclamation point.
“Punctuation should not be excessive, especially in an opening message,” said Ms. Golden, who ghostwrites for those struggling on the dating apps. She has seen too many hopes dashed by an overly enthusiastic greeting.
Conveniently, her rules also apply to the workplace. The sly devil is just as loathsome in the office, where it has been said to ring unprofessional. So much so that Tami Reiss, a product strategist, created a Gmail plug-in called Just Not Sorry, that alerts users when they’ve exceeded the appropriate number of marks (two) in a work email.
“This isn’t Vegas on a girls trip,” said Ms. Reiss. “The triple exclamation point is great when your best friend just got engaged, but at work, it can come off as juvenile.”
The author notes that the exclamation point has its defenders too:
To Jonny Sun, a writer on “BoJack Horseman” and a viral tweeter, the exclamation point is the wild child. “It’s a rebellion against the weighty rules of grammar that were passed down to us,” he said. “The exclamation point is a way of saying we’re bucking these rules because they feel old fashioned and dusty.” The period, in contrast, “feels like a sigh.”
The article continues:
Eager to please and good with kids, the exclamation point skews feminine. The writer Amelia Tait calls it “emotional labor” in grammatical form, shouldering the responsibility to ease tension or hurt. Gretchen McCulloch, a creator of the podcast “Lingthusiasm,” said it functions as a “social smile” and a mark of sincerity in a time when irony abounds. It just wants to Marie Kondo your sentences — to clear out a small space and spark some joy. (Its origin is the Latin symbol for joy, io.)
Clare Palo, a social media editor at New York Magazine, declared last week that the anti-exclamation point movement “has gone too far.” Her whole life she has been told by friends, the internet and, most recently, her landlord, to tone down her punctuation. What’s so wrong, she asked, with wanting to spread some digital cheer? Her colleague Madeleine Aggeler noted that at this point in the digital evolution of language, ending a sentence in a period (“okay.”) can be misread as: “Why don’t you crawl into a cave and die?”
Ms. Palo thinks Gen Z may turn the tide all the way. “Gen Z-ers use exclamation points more casually because they grew up texting,” she said.
In a related article, “The Em Dash Divides,” Kate Mooney writes about another much-debated form of punctuation:
For some writers, the em dash is a vice that their editors occasionally forgive but more often forbid. It has been duly cast as an alluring alternative to the comma, colon, semicolon and full stop in the “distracted boyfriend” meme.
The longest of the dashes — roughly the length of the letter “M” — the em dash is emphatic, agile and still largely undefined. Sometimes it indicates an afterthought. Other times, it’s a fist pump. You might call it the bad boy, or cool girl, of punctuation. A freewheeling scofflaw. A rebel without a clause.
Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at the University of Maryland and the author of five books on the poet Emily Dickinson (the original em dash obsessive), said that Dickinson used the dash to “highlight the ambiguity of the written word.”
“The dash is an invitation to the reader to make meaning,” Dr. Smith said. “It can also be a leap of faith.”
Students, read one or both of the articles, then tell us:
How do you feel about the exclamation point? Are you concerned about “exclamation-point inflation”? Do you agree with Tami Reiss when she says: “This isn’t Vegas on a girls trip. The triple exclamation point is great when your best friend just got engaged, but at work, it can come off as juvenile”? Or do you lean more toward Jonny Sun, who argues that “the exclamation point is a way of saying we’re bucking these rules because they feel old fashioned and dusty”?
The glorious em dash — the king of all punctuation marks! The em dash is bold, daring, and versatile. What other punctuation mark can be a semicolon, colon, comma, and parentheses?
Semicolons are by the book foot soldiers; they do a good job linking two would-be sentences. The em dash, on the other hand, is a colorful punctuation mark — it can be used to make a strong point! The comma is great for describing, listing, and linking clauses, but it is easy for commas to flood a sentence. The em dash comes to the rescue when the commas take over a sentence — saving it from sinking in a sea of commas. …
The em dash — the Swiss Army knife of punctuation — can greatly improve your writing — just don’t overdo it!
Write your own simile, metaphor or other kind of comparison to illustrate your viewpoint on your favorite or least favorite punctuation mark.