There’s a place for the exclamation point in even serious writing, but the rule of thumb is this: Limit yourself to one in every 10,000 sentences.
That’s a tongue-in-cheek rule, of course, and I’ve broken it myself. It’s meant to inspire caution. Will your sentence really become more urgent or important if you stick an exclamation point at the end?
I was reminded of this a few nights ago, during a Seinfeld rerun in which Mr. Lippman takes Elaine to task for overuse of the exclamation point in a novel she’s editing. Elaine says she felt a writer’s work lacked energy, which results in such laughers as “It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!” and “I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark Bar didn’t come out!”
“Get rid of the exclamation points,” Lippman tells her at the end of the scene.
Yes! That Works!
By the same token, leaving off the exclamation point can deflate an energetic sentence. Take the first three lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World”:
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Now imagine those lines without the exclamation points. They don’t have the vibrancy, the breathless awe, that I believe Millay intends. A period would make them seem matter-of-fact and ordinary.
The key is that Millay is not trying to bump up the excitement by tacking on exclamation points. Her speaker truly is excited, and Millay is giving voice to that.
Overuse of the exclamation point is most often seen in marketing and ad copy. This writing is supposed to create urgency — a gotta-get-it-now feeling — but a constant stream of exclamation points does little but make the prospective customer feel yelled at. Buy this product! It’s great! You’ll love it!
Imagine a real-life salesman grabbing you by the hand and shouting his entire pitch, instead of a few key phrases.
Peppering your copy with exclamation points everywhere dilutes the effectiveness of the sentences that deserve one.
You’ll love the look of this handbag! And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit!
You’ll love the look of this handbag. And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit.
Next time you find yourself tempted to add energy, try the sentence with and without an exclamation point. Does it still convey the urgency you need? You may be surprised! Or just surprised.