I once read a novel where a protagonist points out that the use of profanity is the sign of a stunted mind. Not only is the person swearing ill-mannered and boorish, but he (or she) obviously does not have the words in his vocabulary to effectively convey his real meaning. Hence the over-use of slang or offensive language to cover his deficiencies.
This made sense to me—after all, if you can’t come up with sufficient insulting words in your normal vocabulary, you’re very likely to resort to swear words that you’ve heard so often.
In today’s age of mobile phones, two words are better than fifteen. It’s so much cooler to say (and easier to type) ‘f**k off!’ to someone than to tell them to ‘take that narcissistic ego of yours and feed it to your troglodyte of a brother’. The same goes for expressing oneself on social media platforms, such as Twitter, where you’re limited by the technology. Even with the over-prevalence of expletives on the internet, you need to shout to be heard online, and profanity normally gets people’s attention.
It did surprise me, therefore (considering the age we live in), that there were very few expletives in the manuscripts we received at Indireads. The sheer lack of profanity, in fact, stands out in our books—something I would normally consider a welcome breath of fresh air.
Sadly, that range of emotion, so easily expressed in two words, hasn’t been replaced with eloquent wit or powerful intellect. It’s been replaced with the exclamation mark. Everything, it seems, is more powerful when said with an exclamation mark at the end. A symptom of the times we live in, perhaps, where expressing emotion concisely and powerfully through an impersonal channel (such as email and text messages) is a challenge. Add several exclamation marks to a word—‘Hello!!!!’—and you easily convey anger, sarcasm or exasperation.
As with profanity, there is no need to tax your vocabulary with unnecessary explanations anymore. Apparently, the exclamation mark says it all.
Except that, when over-used in a novel, no matter how serious the subject matter, or how down-to-earth the story, all the characters come across like thirteen-year-olds embarking on an Enid Blyton adventure. Everything they say, from a normal ‘Hi!’ to an emphatic ‘Stop!’, is punctuated with an exclamation mark.
Nothing, consequently, has any emphasis to it at all, and everyone in the book needs to be heavily sedated.
Back in the Stone Age when I was in school, our teacher taught us that if everything is emphasized then nothing is. In 1926 (I did mention the Stone Age, didn’t I?), Henry Watson Fowler published ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’, in which he says: “Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I agree with Fowler. The Chicago Manual of Style says this about exclamation marks: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.”
Unless all your characters are overly excited, habitually over-emphasize everything they say, or are chronically ironic, the exclamation mark should be conspicuously absent from your writing.
Spurious sensation is what it’s all about. As far as I’m concerned, using the exclamation mark is the equivalent of swearing, and I am beginning to reconsider the breath of fresh air in the ‘f**king’ clean manuscripts I’m getting!