Back when I was in school and learning to write, I was taught that exclamation points should be used sparingly. Unless someone is literally screaming in agony or a war has just ended, adding one makes you look dippy and overwrought, I was taught.

Oh, how times have changed! These days I find myself routinely responding to a colleague sending me a document or my husband agreeing to pick up milk with a straight-faced 'Thanks!!!' Not adding all those exclamation points just feels grumpy somehow.

As I see this in other peoples' texts and emails as well, I was pretty sure the habit wasn't just my own personal weirdness, but before I read a great, recent article from Julie Beck in The Atlantic, I would have been hard pressed to explain why I did it exactly. Beck delves into the science of punctuation "inflation," explaining why we all suddenly feel compelled to use so many exclamation points, and why the situation is worse for women.

It's not just you. The whole world has gone exclamation point crazy.

"All of these quirks of social media--that would include exclamation points, and all caps, and repetition of letters, those are the three main ones that show enthusiasm--people use more of them," Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguistics professor, confirms to Beck.

How did we get here? Blame the inexorable rise of email and texting. These mediums, Beck explains, inherently lack tone. Which means it is super easy to come across as cold or even rude when using them. To counteract that effect, people began using exclamation points to convey warmth and sincerity, rather than real enthusiasm or anger.

"The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email's essential lack of tone," wrote Send authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe way back in 2007, predicting, "We will continue to sprinkle exclamation points liberally." 

Things have obviously gotten worse in the ten plus years since then, so much so that now you feel like a monster if you don't add at least two exclamation points after every "Thank you." In fact, if you want to convey actual excitement, a minimum of three exclamation points is probably necessary, according to a non-scientific but entirely believable online poll by another linguist.

The situation is even worse for women, who are still burdened by greater societal pressure to be warm and friendly. "As many studies have shown," Beck explains, "exclamation points can be a sort of emotional labor women have to perform to be liked, especially in the workplace."

But men shouldn't feel too secure in their exclamation point skepticism. This kind of "language creep" generally moves from young people and women into mainstream use. So even stern-faced, silver-haired grammar sticklers will likely soon feel under pressure to add smiley faces and exclamation points to their every text communication.

Sometimes just say it in person.

All of which raises the million dollar question: should you resist this punctuation creep? When it comes to text-based communication, the answer is, not if you want to sound sincere and human. But Beck's article also suggests that, if we're all straining so hard against the inherent limitations of texts and emails, maybe sometimes we should just choose another way to communicate

If the situation is emotionally charged enough that you need four exclamation points to make your tone clear in writing, perhaps it's time to consider actually saying whatever you need to say in person. Not only does braving an actual human encounter help you avoid what tech commentator Clay Shirky called the " functional Asperger's Syndrome" of text-based communication and fight back against the loneliness of our screen-filled work lives, but studies also show you're likely to be much more persuasive face to face.

Published on: Jul 3, 2018