Dot Wordsworth

Exclamation marks

Even the latest and least prescriptive edition of Fowler advises caution

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‘Like eating in the street,’ said my husband. Astonishing! He’d said something not only coherent in itself but also connected to a remark I’d been addressing to him. I had just said that at school I had been taught that the use of the exclamation mark was vulgar or rude.

Observant readers will have noted that I have already used one exclamation mark in this column. My defence is that I exclaimed. I agree that exclamation alone does not constitute conversation. On Twitter, a new and annoying cliché, often appended to a photograph, is the bare exclamation: ‘Wow! Just wow!’ It usually belongs to the genre ‘clickbait’, disappointing the reader once it is clicked on and studied.

I was shocked to see that the Oxford Dictionaries website says that one of the main uses of the exclamation mark is to end a sentence that expresses ‘something that amuses the writer’. In my experience, people use it to indicate that something is a joke even though it is not funny. I see that the new edition of Fowler, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, has added an introductory quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald to its short entry on the subject: ‘An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.’ But he agrees with R.W. Burchfield in the previous edition that ‘Except in poetry, the exclamation mark should be used sparingly.’ And he preserves the original judgment of H.W. Fowler that it is ‘one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer’.

Screamers (as journalists called them in the days of smoking and drinking) began their life as notes of admiration, as Shakespeare called them in The Winter’s Tale. They were then also called admirative points, a borrowing from the French. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a quotation from 1996 for the use of admiration mark: ‘Spanish has two different marks that do not exist in the English system: an admiration mark that opens and an interrogative mark that opens.’ I suspect that the term was carried over by the writer from the Spanish signo de admiración, and that in current English it is extinct. Not so the mark itself, for the genteel writer still the Mark of the Beast!