From an early age I took a shining to the French language. It was new and exciting, and when my older sister started learning it in elementary school, I followed along with her lessons. By the time I was old enough to start taking classes in school, I already understood most of the words and sentence structures.
Child genius, I know.
For whatever reason, I picked up the language quickly and had a much deeper understanding of French grammar than I did with English. In fact, my French grade was always higher than my English marks.
You’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with anything, but just hang in there. I’m getting to it. Let me fast forward a few years to when I did a foreign exchange program. When I was 16 years old, I had the opportunity to live and study for a semester in France. Apart from two English classes, all of my courses were in French.
I was living in a rural town, and none of my new friends spoke English. Thankfully they were patient, and even bought me my first ever cellphone so that I could text them during school hours.
I remember one particular occasion, when I texted one of my friends, probably inquiring about after school plans or what to do on the weekend, and got the most mysterious response back.
“Why are you yelling at me?” (For simplicity’s sake, I’ve translated their response in English).
I wasn’t yelling over text. How can one possible yell via text message?
So of course, I responded, “What??!!!” – to which I received a very similar response.
“You just yelled again.”
Very long story short, I was being questioned on my use of exclamation points.
Here’s the real kicker, though – I had been ICQing and MSN Messengering it up since I was ten years old, and never had I been accused of yelling because of all my exclamation points.
In fact, I used them ALL the time.
It didn’t matter if I was happy, sad, mad, or glad, an exclamation point (or twenty) would adorn the end of my sentences.
What I learned from my darling French friend was that the misuse of exclamation points was a serious faux pas in their country. They actually took their grammar quite seriously, and while I’m sure my English teachers in Canada would have had an issue with its overuse, they never seemed to call us out on it.
It’s been well over a decade since this initial grammar spanking occurred, but it wasn’t until I started my own business that I actually realized that my addiction to exclamation points had become an issue.
Exclamation points have a purpose, and when overused in business, they make you look unprofessional. After all, if every email, sales page, newsletter subject line, and social update is rife with exclamation points, are you really sending the right message?
The answer is no – no, you are not. Let’s find out why…
Where It All Went Wrong
Internet marketing. Yes, I do believe this is where it all went wrong.
Over the past several years, every sales page, ad, promotion, and email subject line seemed to require an exclamation point.
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Everything seemed to warrant an exclamation point, but guess what – it was complete bollocks.
Exclamation points are meant to be used when expressing strong emotion or an ironic comment, and should be reserved for special occasions.
Writing style guides have designed clear-cut scenarios for the proper use of exclamation points, and I gotta tell you, it’s not to let your subscribers know there’s a “brand new blog post!”
Here’s a look at what the Associated Press Stylebook says:
“Emphatic expressions: Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.
Avoid overuse: Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period.”
And here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style suggests:
“Use of the exclamation point. An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.”
There are two key similarities between the two:
- Used to display emphatic expressions
- Avoid overuse
Perhaps the core issue here is that over the years, the misuse of exclamation marks has become a baseline for politeness. Whether texting or emailing, this punctuation mark has come to symbolize enthusiasm and interest. Without it, people tend to feel we are being unfriendly or insincere.
Oh, the horror.
The same principle applies to its overuse in marketing. Online marketers in particular are guilty of adding exclamation points to the end of every line of copy, in an effort to increase enthusiasm for their new product or post. What they fail to realize is how unnecessary it is. If what you are selling or promoting is actually high quality, the exclamation point becomes redundant.
Get Back in Grammar’s Good Graces
While it may seem like it’s too late to rip yourself away from the exclamation epidemic, when it comes to corresponding for business, here’s what I want you to do:
1. Reread Every Email and Text Before Hitting “Send”
Seriously. Reread it all and mark down how many times you used exclamation points where they were totally unnecessary. This could be following a salutation (Hey!), a rather unimportant or unexciting update (I’ve got a doctor’s appointment!), and any other scenario that does not make you want to jump on a couch with excitement à la Tom Cruise.
Actively identifying how often you offend English grammar will make you more aware of your actions in the future, which is why I want you to take the time to acknowledge it.
2. Use Alternative Punctuation
Start replacing your exclamation marks with proper punctuation, such as a period, colon, semicolon or comma.
For example, following salutations, use a comma, i.e., Hello, vs Hello!
3. Choose Words That Convey Your Meaning Effectively
As it states in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, “it is far more convincing to create emphasis by the force of your words rather than the force of your punctuation.”
We have been relying on punctuation to convey our mood when it should be our choice of words that does so. If you want to convey a strong message, be more disciplined with your choice of words.
Life After the Exclamation Point
Like a recovering addict, you too will go into withdrawal when you first start removing your exclamation points.
Sentences will feel naked. Friends will question your motives. Life will seem a little lackluster. (Check out this post from The Onion to see what I mean).
But here’s the good news – business correspondence will become more professional. You will discover new ways to engage your readers. Your marketing will become less spammy.
And isn’t that what truly matters?
Of course, there will be plenty of occasions where tossing in an exclamation point is more than appropriate. Just be sure to save it for those rare and special occasions where it truly stands for something amazing.