Online writing is great!!!

Posted by on September 26, 2011

We continue the discussion of online English with a guest post from author, teacher and teacher trainer Lindsay Clandfield. Lindsay writes about the resurgence of the exclamation mark.

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Great! It’s time for another post for this blog!

Looking back at those two sentences I see a liberal use of exclamation marks. What am I communicating with these? Is this something that is becoming more and more normal, or is it slightly… annoying? Let’s find out!

The Macmillan Dictionary defines the exclamation mark as follows:

The mark ! used in writing to show that someone says something suddenly and loudly because they are surprised, impressed, angry etc.

In the Improve your Writing section, the dictionary goes on to say the following:

Exclamation marks are typical of informal writing and are not usually appropriate in more formal contexts such as academic or professional writing. Learners often overuse exclamation marks in formal writing, where it is usually better to end the sentence with a full stop.

While it’s true that learners may overuse exclamation marks in formal writing, this practice may be spreading to both learners and native speakers in online writing. The distinction between formal and informal is becoming more and more blurred.

And in informal writing online, exclamation marks abound. Here are some examples of my own from Twitter and Facebook updates, and even from emails.

I return to Onestopenglish for the first time in 2 years!
Greetings from Brasilia, the created capital of Brazil which is less than 70 years old!
I’ve found Twitter invaluable in keeping in touch. Made lots of friends!
Enjoy the #IATEFL Poland conference!
Owl Hall is a book, a podcast play, a blog … a new experience!
See correspondence below. Result!
Watch for it soon on the Macmillan Brazil youtube channel!
Look forward to seeing you soon!

Novelists have been down on the use of exclamation marks. Elmore Leonard wrote that you should be allowed no more than 2 or 3 per 10,000 words of prose. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” It’s not just novelists either. I did an informal study of friends and colleagues about the use of the exclamation mark. Some of the answers were quite critical, especially when you put too many in, or just hold down the ! key to show you really mean it:

I do find exclamation marks rather irritating as I believe they are overused.
With overuse, it loses its meaning (and it’s annoying).
Overuse just leads to ineffectiveness. If writing is packed with exclamation points, the exclamation points cease to mean anything.
Way overused. More than one is never called for.
But it sort of turns us into teenagers, no??!!

However, the majority of respondents admitted that they thought exclamation marks were frequent and even helpful in online communication. Among the reasons listed in favour of exclamation marks were that they add friendly stress and emotion, soften communication, convey a “lightness” of touch or compensate for a lack of visual and tonal cues. It was also mentioned that this was a sign of your character.

Some have wondered if the issue of exclamation marks is about being excited when you write, and whether this is gender related. Research into email writing styles by Colley and Todd (2002) and Winn and Ruben (2001) both found that women used what were called markers of excitability (e.g. exclamation marks, multiple exclamation marks and caps) more than men did. This reminds me vaguely of many other studies of speech and writing relating to gender, in which women’s style tends to be often characterized in negative terms. Is this a sort of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus approach to online writing?

Not necessarily, says Carol Waseleski, who did a more recent study of gender and exclamation marks in online communication on discussion lists. Using a more nuanced methodology, she found that while women did use exclamation marks a little more, these were not a sign of excitability, but of friendliness. And a recent guide to email etiquette by two American editors Shipley and Schwalbe argue that in the internet age more friendliness is what email needs. “Email is without affect,” they write. “It has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be.”

Well, I’m not so sure about that last bit. Surely it depends on the words you choose too? But it does seem that, on balance, the resurgence of the exclamation mark is looked on as something benign, or even beneficial. It has been saved!

Of course, this now begs the question of the return of other forms of punctuation. The use of capital letters to indicate that you are SHOUTING, or those three little dots called the ellipsis, which some of my colleagues told me they use far more than exclamation marks. That, however, may be the subject of another post …

References
Colley, A., & Todd, Z. (2002),  Gender-linked differences in the style and content of e-mails to friends. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21 (4), 380-392.
Shipley, D & Shwalbey, W. (2207), Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, Knopf
Waseleski, C. (2006), Gender and the use of exclamation points in computer-mediated communication: An analysis of exclamations posted to two electronic discussion lists. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4),
Winn, L., & Rubin, D. (2001), Enacting gender identity in written discourse: Responding to gender role bidding in personal ads. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 20 (4), 393-418.

Thanks to my friends and colleagues on Facebook who contributed to this discussion.

Comments (4)
  • Nice post, Lindsay! The use of exclamation marks can be easily overdone, but I like having the option particularly when I want to convey enthusiasm or friendliness. Tone can be tricky online, especially between strangers and in short passages like tweets, so the mark is useful in these contexts to emphasise a warmness of tone, an absence of sarcasm, and so on. They can be smiles without smilies.

    Posted by Stan on 26th September, 2011
  • [...] Dictionary blog continued their discussion of online English with a post about exclamation points and online writing and a roundup of favorite online English words. In addition Stan Carey wrote about foolish [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 30th September, 2011
  • “Of course, this now begs the question [...]”
    It’s depressing to see this on a blog about usage.

    Posted by livex xavier on 7th March, 2012
  • The original use of “beg the question” was indeed slightly different from Lindsay’s use here, but the Macmillan dictionary entry http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/beg#beg-the-question, where the ordering is based on frequency, gives the original use as the second sense of the phrase, suggesting that the new meaning has become very well established. Nothing to get depressed about – it’s all part of the evolving language!

    Posted by Stephen on 8th March, 2012
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