Elmore Leonard: Do we use too many exclamation marks?

Hazard sign

Elmore Leonard has died at the age of 87. The crime novelist really didn't like exclamation marks, notes Finlo Rohrer.

His 10 rules of writing from 2001 are arguably as famous as any of his novels. Point five reads: "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose."

He wasn't the only enemy. "Cut out all these exclamation points," F Scott Fitzgerald urged. "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

There's even a word, bangorrhea, that describes their overuse.

Start Quote

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”

End Quote Elmore Leonard

But if you read any news website or newspaper you won't find many. Stern-faced sub-editors whittle them away. Some ban them completely, insisting that if you can't convey tone in a more elegant way then writing might not really be the career for you.

And yet exclamation marks litter our personal messages, in texts and emails.

You get clusters of exclamation and question marks across most communication on the internet, argues linguist David Crystal, co-author with wife Hilary of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain.

"The reason is that you can keep your finger on the key and end your sentence with 20 exclamation marks. From the earliest days of the internet you saw this unprecedented increase in punctuation marks."

As with emoticons, there might be a gender difference. When he surveyed a collection of texts, Crystal noticed females used exclamation marks four times as often as males.

Many of those "suffering" from bangorrhea would argue that exclamation marks are an attempt to achieve lightness of tone or emotional emphasis.

"See you there!" - in response to an invitation to a party - implies enthusiasm about attending. "See you there." merely states that you will be there. It could just as well be a rendezvous by the gallows as a joyous social occasion.

Exclamation marks seem almost inevitable in the confined space of text messages. No-one wants to appear terse. Without the exclamation mark, your text can feel like something that might have come out of the mouth of famously deadpan comedian Steven Wright.

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