University Press Week: Beware the exclamation point, authors!

Question: Is it possible to be taken seriously as a scholarly writer if you use exclamation points?

Less snooty than the semicolon, less trendy than the hashmark, the exclamation point labors in the disreputable quarters of the written word: romance novels, tabloid headlines, and marketing and advertising. A journalism school would throw you out the day you turned in an assignment with an exclamation point, even if your avowed career goal was to write for Us magazine or the many sub-Us, frontal lobe damaged-only readerships represented in the supermarket checkout line.

An exclamation point should … have a very special point to make,” says William Germano. A good general rule. Alas, inviting the average writer to identify his/her own special points is asking for trouble, and a lot of exclamation points. Look at how some academics abuse italics.

Editors, sensing the potential for exclaimophilia, defend an unwritten cultural rule that keep the point out of virtually all the manuscripts that pass their desks. Unscientific study indicates an exemption to the rule is allowed only if:

• A scholar discusses the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert;

• Or writes in the voice of an excited Spaniard, to wit: “¡Mi aerodeslizador esta lleno de anguilas!”;

• Or analyzes the 1970s sitcom What’s Happening!! (note, the two exclamation points are intentional);

• Or holds a university’s Distinguished Chair of Infomercials, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms;

• Or writes about the accordion, as with Marion Jacobson’s recent UIP book Squeeze This!. Because there is no subdued way to discuss accordions.

Even scholars who employ dialogue to present their material have to pass on the e-point. The tyranny of convention forces him/her to present dialogue in respectable, Spock-like tones, regardless of the enthusiasm or rage being expressed. Their subjects may be said to exclaim, yell, howl, even ejaculate—as long as they do it with a period or question mark at the end of the sentence.

Is it time to loosen up the restriction? Should the exclamation mark have a place in our high- to middlebrow writing, if used sparingly?

We live in an age of running a democracy 140 keystrokes at a time. Thus, I argue the exclamation point offers a fantastically economical method of getting across a wide range of emotions with one tap of the left pinky finger in combination with however you hold down the SHIFT key. Furthermore, it barely takes up space on the line.

Hard-pressed publishers know every extra page they have to print and bind (and proof and design) costs money. To illustrate the profitability of the e-point, let’s use an example from a make-believe academic title called The Educated Cat, an in-depth exploration of cutting-edge research into feline intelligence, here illustrated with a cover from the web site Awful Library Books.

educated cat

Such a book might include this sentence:

We will elaborate the phenomenon Object Normal Posture Displacement with Resulting Collaborative Reparative Behaviors Commencing in a Loud Momentarily Panic-Inducing Episode, or LMPIE.

An exclamation point, along with slight copy editing, turns the paragraph into more affordable-to-print text, such as:

Here’s why cats always make half-full water glasses go CRASH!

Now that’s some accessible scholarship.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should declare my prejudices, in order to allow others to better make their own judgments.

I favor the return of the exclamation point because I became a habitual reader via comic books. Whereas respectable children progressed from Dr. Seuss to Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys to Watership Down, I started at Richie Rich/Casper and worked my way through Archie and into Marvel Comics. Only then did I become interested in books without ads for X-ray glasses. Now that I think about it, I don’t think Marvel Comics used anything but exclamation points and question marks. It makes sense, I guess. The average superbeing lives a high action life. Though even when a beverage break enters a story there isn’t a period to be found:

hulk coffee








Granted, you can’t expect the Hulk to speak in a normal voice. He has super-lungs and he’s bound to get over-excited, as any being that regressed takes primal urges like eating and drinking very seriously. But, realistically, who gets jacked about serving coffee? No one at the places I go to, I’ll tell you that.

As a publishing professional, I have to accept the exclamation point’s marginalized position in the industry. Even in the far-sighted UIP marketing shop, we endeavor to keep up a level of decorum befitting an institution dedicated to the pursuit/accumulation of knowledge. But let’s face facts. The world keeps speeding up. Soon no one will have time for: “Enough talk,” the Hulk declared. “Time to drink.” On that day, we’ll welcome back the exclamation point as the perfect punctuation for an ever-more-breathless age.