Why exclamation marks make me want to exclaim “bullsh*t!!!”

HTWB exclamation markAs the parent of a university student I have been taking an especial interest recently in the endless stream of literature he’s receiving telling him how to manage everything from his student loan to his contraceptives.

One of these earnest publications that popped out of his latest communiqué from UCAS – the UK’s gateway organization that matches students with universities – was called “Advice and information to help you at university” and produced by a large European bank which shall remain nameless, although the words “olé, olé” should give you a hint.

Er, how old roughly would your target audience be, Señor Banker?

I can see it now … a snivelling 40-year-old copywriter from the bank’s ad agency, hungover from too much wine and weed the night before, tapping unenthusiastically on a laptop and thinking “oh trollocks to this. What did the brief say? Write a booklet about finance and budgeting for uni kids? Kids? OK. That means lots of patronizing twaddle and plenty of exclamation marks!!!”

Not only does this booklet assume readers’ mental age to be about 12, but also it is liberally peppered with lots of exclamation marks to make the incredibly boring subject matter even more boring.  For example … “…using a credit card to withdraw money from an ATM is treated as a ‘cash advance’. This means you pay interest charges up to 30% APR!” Golly gosh, isn’t that horrifying!!?? (Well yes it is actually, but you don’t need to stick an exclamation mark on it to get point across to a bright 18-year-old.)

Exclamation marks are OK for kids writing for kids, but when done by adults for kids they make my skin crawl. (!!!)

Rather in the way that staring at a snake can be both fascinating and repugnant, this booklet kept me riveted right until the bitter end. How can intelligent young adults take this bullshit seriously? If I were a newbie uni student, reading that text would make me want to throw up and never as much as consider banking with the “olé, olé.”

Even keeping my meager stash of cash under my mattress would be a preferable alternative, especially as that would obviate the need for me to take any more patronizing crap from banks (and their copywriters) who think they know how to communicate with me. I may be 18, but I’m not an idiot. Oh, sorry – idiot!!

According to Lynne Truss in her delightfully bitchy and brilliant book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” the exclamation mark is “a screamer, a gasper, a startler or (sorry) a dog’s cock.”

“Ever since it came along,” Truss continues, “grammarians have warned us to be wary of the exclamation mark, mainly because, even when we try to muffle it with brackets (!), it still shouts, flashes like neon, and jumps up and down. In the family of punctuation, where the full stop (period) is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semi-colon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-seeking brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”

So true; and in the case of older adults writing for young people, the exclamation mark wrongly used is just as embarrassing and humiliating as that brother who gets over-excited, breaks things and laughs too loudly at a family party when nobody thinks he’s funny.

I don’t say I’ll never use an exclamation mark again, because I will. But I’ll think twice about doing it in any stuff I write that’s aimed at a younger audience…

What do you think? Are exclamation marks cringe-making excuses for boring text? Or should we embrace them as cheering bits of punctuation to take the dreariness out of our lives?

Brush up your  writing, whatever your audience:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English
“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc




  1. Definitely agree with all of the above. When editing books with an over abundance of exclamation marks, I’ve been known to “Find” all of them and “Replace” with full stops at the start of the exercise, to save me the hassle and annoyance of replacing every one as I go. Then I might put in the odd one as I go through the manuscript, if really required. They mainly seem to be used by writers who think their humorous remarks are either made funnier with, or won’t be understood without, the offending “!!!”. As you say, readers of any age aren’t that stupid.

    • Absolutely right, Lucy.

      Mind you it’s an easy enough trap to fall into, if you’ll excuse my lousy grammar. I do that “find and replace” exrercise with my own writing sometimes when I’ve been a bit too enthusiastic with the screamers.

      Why I really lost it with this bank booklet for students, though, was because whoever wrote it used exclamation points almost as if to say “now sit up and take notice, children, this bit is important. Read it carefully and I’ll give you a sweetie.” Yuk.

      My son, who ironically (and coincidentally) is working for the same bank during his gap year, thought the booklet was hilarious, but then he has my overly-developed sense of the ridiculous. Other students might not see the funny side and just feel patronized and pissed off.

  2. Yes!

  3. I love exclamation points so much that it can be a problem. I try to keep myself under control, but it’s difficult. There just so exciting and fun, just like I love things to be…

    Oh, well. I’ve been trying to cut back on them lately. It’s been difficult for me, but I soldier on. Thanks for giving me (another) reminder of why it’s best not to use them (even if I adore them).

    Have a great day, and happy writing.

    • Oops. It’s they’re not there, sorry.

      • I think it’s the same old same old … misuse of something leading to its dilution and even ridicule. What irked me particularly with this brochure my son had was that its writer had thought that by slinging in lots of exclamation marks in places where an exclamation mark clearly wasn’t called for, s/he would make it appeal to youngsters.

        If we keep exclamation marks purely to mark an exclamation, that’s OK in my view…

  4. The only thing worse than adults using an insane amount of exclamation marks to market to the younger set is adults using them to market to adults…and thinking it will work in their favor.

    • Very true, Nikki. It’s as if they’re saying “my product/service really is pretty cr*ppy so I’m going to make it look exciting by using lots of exclamation marks!!!!” Thanks for dropping by, and give my love to Texas…


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