In a recent email exchange, a friend and I were invited to participate in a research discussion about the youth feminist movement(s). Having interviewed with this researcher before, we were both extremely excited about the prospect. My friend first replied to me only, writing:
“SOOO INTERESTING!!!!!!!! AHHHH I WANNA DO IT LOL”
A few minutes later, when he replied-all, I was struck by his comparatively restrained response:
“Thanks for updating us! I would love to participate.”
In the second version, my friend reigned in his charmingly explosive enthusiasm to express a more collected, formalized tone, balancing the need to “keep cool” without sacrificing a show of interest. I, on the other hand, quickly replied-all with very little restraint: “Yes yes yes!!!!!!!!!” I said. (The originator of the email quickly followed up: “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly and with excitement (Cecelia, these exclamation points! Are great!)”).
The exchange made me think back to some of the emails I’ve sent to friends recently. Below, I shamelessly reveal a few of my most recent subject lines:
“i’m on my way don’t wait for me!!!!!!!!!!!”
“sooooooo funnyyyyyyyyy aaahhhhh!!!!!”
And, my personal favorite: “ARE WE GOING TO TARGET AFTER WORK TODAY?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?”
Rest assured, I always reserve manic punctuation for only my personal life — these emails went to friends of mine, not anyone with whom I have a more professional relationship. But what was I trying to convey in these elaborately dotted titles? Why do I use exclamation points so sparingly during business hours, and rampantly on my own time?
On first inspection, the exclamation points in “i’m on my way don’t wait for me!!!!!!!!!!” convey urgency — I was running late. Yet, at the risk of losing service while riding between subway platforms, I took an extra 3 precious express train seconds to hold down the exclamation point key on my iPhone. Why? Because if I hadn’t, I feared my message might seem insincere or careless. The primary message hiding among that corn field of punctuation, I would argue, is something our generation (and women in particular) often have a complicated and troubling relationship with: apology.
In speech, qualifiers serve the same function. Starting sentences with, “I don’t know if this is right, but…” — or more subtle qualifiers, like “I think” — express doubt, reservation, and, indeed, apology. They make meaning obscure and indirect, questionable and inconclusive, rather than powerful and decisive. In some cases, qualifiers can be used as a tool to introduce a question or invite collaborative thought; but more often than not, they detract from the statement in ways the speaker does not intend. The irony of the exclamation point as qualifier, in this case, is that exclamation points are supposed to emphasize a point, not reduce it.
In an academic paper, where the writer is the author-ity (see Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”) of the text, exclamation points are rarely, if ever, used. The writer creates emphasis with rhythm, pacing, and alternating grammatical structures, all of which are shaped by other forms of punctuation, like a colon, a semi-colon, or even a well placed period. In this context, exclamation points would appear emotionally charged and brash; but worse, they could appear unthoughtful and impulsive, undoing any readerly trust the writer may have gained through more reflective, controlled, and carefully constructed argumentation. In other words, the very same punctuation that I use so frequently in personal emails completely discredits the writer in contexts where her authority is being tested.
On the other hand, let’s take a look at that last subject line (here, again, for your reference: “ARE WE GOING TO TARGET AFTER WORK TODAY?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?”). As the author of this subject line, I can tell you that it was intentionally overdone, and contained a very specific message. If you’ve ever been to Target after work, you know it is both indulgent and overstimulating. It sells toilet paper in bulk (something no one wants to carry home) alongside candy flavored makeup and toothbrushes that suction to your hand (things you may not buy, but would likely interest you for quite a while). The series of seemingly redundant “?!”s in the subject line condensed my, well, inner struggle into one, nearly instantaneous block of punctuation, encapsulating the following: “Are we actually going to Target after work today? In truth, I really just want to go home, but I know we are practically out of hand soap and toilet paper, so it seems we simply must go. After all, I suppose I could take a look at their selection of cold weather tights, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time now…. Oh, I don’t know! I really just want to get home as soon as possible, so if we’re going to do this, it has to happen on an extremely tight schedule. I know that if we just do it all together we can make it through, so please say yes! But, if you want to say no, I’ll kind of be relieved.”
When you look at it this way, the slew of “?!”s seems surprisingly efficient.
The question here, of course, is whether the reader actually understood that message without any pretext. If not, you could argue that my exclamation points did undermine my authority just by virtue of making my message vague and, no matter which way you look at it, hidden.
So: What are your exclamation points hiding?