Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett

Exclamation marks: Caution!

Exclamation marks have almost no place in serious writing.

Tabloid journalists use them in headlines. You may need to use exclamation marks in reported speech or where they form part of a name or title.

And that’s about it.

It’s no accident many newspapers and publishing companies ban exclamation marks in their style guides.

They don’t add drama. They don’t improve poor writing.

They don’t tell readers a sentence was funny – although they may tell readers a sentence was supposed to be funny.

In the newspaper business, the exclamation mark is sometimes known as a shriek or screamer. This gives a clue to why they are disliked.

It is often used to add emphasis to sentences. It’s versatile, you’ll see it used to show surprise, anger or joy.

The exclamation mark is the punctuation equivalent of raising your voice – maybe hysterically. Hence the name ‘shriek’.

Here’s why you should consider avoiding them altogether:

  • They distract readers.
  • They are an excuse for lazy writing – good funny or dramatic writing doesn’t need propping up.
  • Once people start using exclamation marks, they usually overuse them – which makes writing look amateur.
  • They hint at a gushing bygone world of “what-ho Jeeves!”, “lashings of ginger beer!” and “golly gosh!”. Your readers will wonder if they’ve stepped into a time warp.
  • They make you and your writing appear unauthentic.

When I was an editor, I told a reporter who used one in a story that was his year’s allocation gone. I was only half joking. If you must use exclamation marks, use them rarely. One a year is more than enough.