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For this author, defending the much maligned exclamation point is personal

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, February 16, 2024 - 11:38am
Updated: Friday, February 16, 2024 - 2:08pm

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We hear so much these days about how our society is polarized, and that we can’t seem to agree on much. Florence Hazrat says that even extends to punctuation — specifically the exclamation point.

Some people find them to be overused, others argue they should be used more. And still others find them maybe a bit too aggressive.

But Hazrat has come to the defense of this much maligned piece of punctuation. She’s a researcher and writer working on punctuation, language and style. She’s also written what she describes as a whimsical biography of the exclamation point called "An Admirable Point."

She joined The Show to talk about what first got her interested in exclamation points.

Full interview

Florence, what first got you interested in exclamation points?

FLORENCE HAZRAT: Specifically academic research was on brackets or parentheses actually in Renaissance writing. So, in the like the 16th, 17th century, but I was reading about punctuation as a whole and time and again, I came across really negative opinions about the exclamation point in particular. And I thought, that can't be really the whole story. So I started to dig a little bit and then this world opened up about how men and women are using exclamation points, exclamation points and texting, politics, the history of the exclamation point, Jane Austen, Shakespeare.

And I just thought somebody needs to write a defense of this poor piece of punctuation that's really so misunderstood. And then that person turned out to be me.

Florence Hazrat
Florence Hazrat
Florence Hazrat

So why is it, do you think, that the punctuation mark gets such a bad rap?

HAZRAT: I think it's probably because we really deeply mistrust feeling and we especially mistrust feeling in text and in writing where we don't see the body and we don't see the face of the other person and we don't see the intention, because it is true that the exclamation point is quite capable of creating strong emotions across time, across the digital ether across space and so on and so forth.

So I also believe that in the 19th, especially 20th century, people really became suspicious of rhetoric, and because the exclamation point is so capable in conveying emotion, the emotion of the writer, but also producing the emotion in the reader, people are just a little bit careful with it.

So when you talk about people maybe being a little wary of emotion in, in writing and reading, does it depend on what kind of writing someone is doing? Like, for example, if you're writing a novel, I would imagine that, that a novelist would probably want to evoke emotion. Whereas maybe if you're sending a text or an email to somebody, maybe there you'd be a little more careful.

HAZRAT: That's quite right. We human beings are actually really, really adept and really capable of telling the difference of context. So even very minute things like a period or something in a text message can transfer a tone or can make us question what the mood of the person was when they put it or when they didn't put it in, in the same way. I think that we are really able to know when a piece of punctuation is appropriate or when it is not.

The exclamation point was actually, or is actually, really being used in some forms of writing. For example, Salman Rushdie in "Midnight's Children" used thousands and thousands of exclamation points. Or Tom Wolfe, for example, in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" where it's all about just an explosion of politics and feelings and rhetoric and conflict and so on. So they really know when and how to use the exclamation point.

But what I also find interesting is that in texting and tweeting and Facebooking and so on and so forth, the exclamation point is actually able to carry warmth and a kind of spontaneity that we might not necessarily feel because there's writing and there's a screen between us. So while it is true that we use more exclamation points when we write digitally, we probably do that because we hope to create some kind of presence and some kind of spontaneity.

Well, it's interesting because I was thinking about this leading up to this interview. And you know, for example, if, if somebody sends you an instant message or a chat or something and you wanna, you wanna thank them for what they've done or what they've said, I wonder like to some extent it, it seems to me like if you say thank you, period, that could come across as maybe a little sarcastic or maybe a little like, you know, oh, hey, thanks. As opposed to a thank you with an exclamation point to me, at least really conveys like, hey, I appreciate that. Thank you for doing that.

HAZRAT: Exactly. That's quite right. So there has been several, there have been several studies where people read the period in a text message as passive aggressive because we don't tend to see that anymore. So the period is sort of disappearing from text messages because the bubble does the work of the period, right? The the speech bubble tells us the sentence is finished here, I'm done. So there's technically no need to put a period, and when we sort of shift the keyboard, we go to another, you know, underlying keyboard and then we put the period that really means we went to some length here to say something.

But what you are saying reminds me of "The Office," the American version where, Dwight and Jim are preparing for Kelly's birthday. I don't know whether you know "The Office," I'm a huge fan of the office and Dwight has put up the sign. It is your birthday, period. And that's typically Dwight, right. Typically Dwight. And Jim sees that comes in and says we can't do that. Like, there's no enthusiasm here. She'll hates it. So he suggests to put an exclamation point and Dwight says very dryly, OK, it's not like she invented a cure for cancer or something. There's no need for enthusiasm here.

Well, that's really funny. And I wonder if there are other instances and maybe that's sort of a function of the way that we communicate now where, you know, maybe we don't write letters to each other as much. But, you know, we sure send a lot of emails and texts and, you know, chats and everything like that. And has that seemingly changed the way we use, maybe not just the exclamation point, but it seems like it's changed the way we use punctuation more broadly.

HAZRAT: That is really interesting because the answer is yes and no. So when we just shoot off a message because texting is an informal media mostly, right? Perhaps we just a piece of information, I meet you 10 minutes later. Do you want pizza, getting us pizza or something? You know, then punctuation tends to disappear. We, punctuation actually is not just the marks between the letters but also spaces, paragraphs. For example, capitalization, you know, we tend to not capitalize the "I" anymore if it's just about sending a quick piece of information.

But actually, a linguist has looked at thousands and thousands of his own text messages and he has found out when the messages become slightly longer, contain more sort of intimate emotional, cognitive information, when we, which people still do, right? Really have conversations, conflicts, expressions of love or whatever through texting, and especially texts that contain words like hope, love, think, believe, you know, all of these cognitive emotional activities, we still use proper quote unquote punctuation.

There's been a couple of social linguistic studies with children who are, of course, growing up with being digital natives. And as long as we keep teaching offline, we keep teaching with books, we keep teaching handwriting and the again, quote unquote proper rules of punctuation because that's of course, also slightly controversial, the conventions. Let's put it that way. As long as we keep teaching that, everything is gonna be fine. You know, there's no, we're not at the end of the world, but we have to keep on teaching that. And if we don't, things might change and we might lose punctuation, we might lose feeling for grammar and so on.

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