Against Exclamation Inflation
The continuous distortion of an exclamation point’s value has been found to inflict an emotional toll on correspondents.
With much of Washington on August vacation and after digging deep in the last few (dozen) newsletters, now’s a perfect time to explore a non-policy issue that—much like nachos—deserves more attention: exclamation points. Indeed, while the so-called “media” devote infinite words to the relatively recent problem of price inflation, the longer-term scourge of Americans’ skyrocketing exclamation point usage—aka “exclamation inflation”—has gone unnoticed by all but the most observant and socially conscious of writers and grammarians.
This, as we’ll discuss today, is a costly mistake.
(And for those of you jonesing for more traditional Capitolism content, fear not: There will be charts here too.)
A Brief History of the Exclamation Point
Before we get to today’s myriad exclamation point problems, however, let’s first review how we got here. Believe it or not, the exclamation point’s history isn’t well-settled, but Wikipedia provides the most common origin story:
Graphically, the exclamation mark is represented by variations on the theme of a full stop point with a vertical line above. One theory of its origin posits derivation from a Latin exclamation of joy, namely io, analogous to "hurray"; copyists wrote the Latin word io at the end of a sentence, to indicate expression of joy. Over time, the i moved above the o; that o first became smaller, and (with time) a dot.
The exclamation mark was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century to show emphasis, and was called the "sign of admiration or exclamation" or the "note of admiration" until the mid-17th century; "admiration" referred to that word's Latin-language sense, of wonderment.
The folks at How Stuff Works then bring us up to modern day:
While exclamation marks have long been scorned in formal writing, throughout the centuries people regularly used them in personal correspondence. And in the late 19th century, yellow journalists and sensationalists often incorporated the startling marks—which printers called screamers, shrieks or bangs—into their work.
During the 20th century, use of the exclamation point calmed down. In fact, while the typewriter was invented in the late 1800s, the exclamation point wasn't given its own key until 1970. The reason was people weren't expected to use it in professional writing. An exclamation point was created by typing a period, backspacing, then typing an apostrophe on top of it.
These 19th and 20th century trends are corroborated by Bradd Libby’s analysis of the number of times the exclamation point appears as a fraction of single words (“1-grams”) in Google Books data for various languages:
Libby notes in the accompanying post that the 1970s flatline continued in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, as How Stuff Works explains, something happened: “[A]round the end of the 20th century, when the internet and texting became widespread (followed by social media a decade later), exclamation points began popping up everywhere, and in great numbers.”
Boy, did they.
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