Today we turn to “Bangorrhea,” the faddish overuse of the exclamation mark, aka the bang! Recommended is a book that will add some grammatical spice to your Ferragosto.
The other night, watching reruns of Seinfeld, I learned that there has been a simmering argument among writers, editors, publishers and readers, dating back centuries, over the use, disuse and misuse of the exclamation mark (!), or bang, screamer and slammer, over its purpose in signalling emotions, expressions and commands (similar to those increasingly annoying emojis). In a subplot of the episode, Elaine, an editor at the fictional Pendant Publishing, abruptly(!) ends an amorous relationship with her otherwise “perfect” novelist boyfriend for not using a single ! in his final draft. Elaine insists that virtually every sentence would be more impactful if they end with !. In a dramatic huff, she throws him out! He slams the apartment door as he leaves! When Elaine’s publisher reads the edited manuscript covered, as though swarmed by armies of ants, with exuberant !!!!!!!!!s he is enraged by her lamebrain notion. The publisher believes this excessive use !s exposes Elaine as uneducated, untutored in the nuances of language.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading the new book by punctuation expert Florence Hazrat, the entertainingly informative An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark! (Godine) wherein she refers to this episode in her introduction! What a fortuitous coincidence!
It inspired me to reflect on my own use of the ! and bouts with Bangorrhea.
Initially I did not recall conflicts with editors over my affection for !s, but after reading Hazrat’s book, and the acrimonious debates that !s have stirred up, I realized I had repressed the truth: I’ve used multiple !!!s to emphasize loud, decisive, declarative statements, both as expressions of anger! and joy! When lost for the correct words to emphasize emotion, I resort !s to reinforce feelings. I thought back on how many times, without telling me, editors have denuded my manuscripts of !!!!! Fuck!
Hazrat’s book is jammed with ! lore cut with doses of rebellion such as Henry Miller’s warning to writers with porno leanings: “Keep your exclamation marks under control.” She tells how Hemingway and Camus barely used emphatic punctuation. For them “all blatant expressions of feeling were anathema.” Peppered with wry commentary Hazrat writes phrase like the ! “detonates on the page and our ears, and also our mouths,” Like the hallucinatory fruit flies I see because I have a surfeit of eye-floaters, Hazrat sees the ! everywhere too! There are exclamation marks on signs, and !s in the wild, she declares! “The small Turkish Islands of Yilan and Siçam, seen together from the sky, create a near perfect exclamation mark.”
“An Admirable Point releases the exclamation mark from its maligned and misunderstood place” with aplomb, “unapologetic enthusiasm” and grammatical perfection, the author revels in the origins of !—eventual acceptance in the language—and what an otherwise abstract sign (!) says about our emotional health in relation to all other marks on paper. “[S]uddenly, abstract letters become alive, imagined into feeling by the dot and bar hovering just above.”
Owing to the multitude of signals and feelings the mark embodies, the ! is evidently the most scrutinized punctuation (more so than dots and dashes, about which Hazrat is also an expert). The ! is an “irrepressible declaration of wonder.” In the modern era when minimalism came into favor, grammarians and stylists “issued warnings against using too many fussy marks and an overtly exclamatory tone.” While there was no place for “pesky punctuation” during this era, graphic designers used extra large, bold ! as eye-grabbing graphic elements.
What fascinated me most is the data collected on the exact number of !s are used in popular literature. “The fewer books you write,” she insists! “the greater the number of outbursts, it might seem.” That’s writing! Once an author finds their voice the bang of !!!s are unnecessary. Unless, of course, your signature trait is to yell!!!!! And scream!!!!!!
This is an essential book for writers and designers who care (as we all do!!!) in developing a unique voice, especially through punctuation.