I understand, intellectually, why exclamation points are best-used sparingly. It’s simple economics: Too much supply decreases demand, thus robbing the mark of its true meaning. As Time’s Katy Steinmetz put it a few years ago, “Exclamation points used to be something you allowed yourself, a secret weapon unsheathed only at a rare and necessary moment.”
That was in 2014, when exclamation point slander was peaking in pop culture, alongside emoticon-hate and sorry-shaming. Back then, I never used exclamation points; I believed they ruined the joke, always, and would lose me job opportunities or something. But I have a theory, and it’s that everything’s back to being an AOL-level mess. Emojis count as sentences, memes count as emails and no one gives a fuck about “u” anymore. In fact, I use “u,” “lol” and “rn” almost exclusively because I think they’re funny and therefore superior to proper English. My use of them is barely even ironic anymore.
I reel it in a bit at work, but still, the rules of professionalism seem to have considerably loosened in the last five years. As far as exclamation points go, that leaves me about here:
As my personal grammar use has spiraled out of control, I’ve been more abusive of punctuation enthusiasm in the last year than I’ve been my whole life — so much so that a wise and quiet type recently advised me to “cool it” if I want to appear authoritative. After considering her point, I agreed to give it a shot. Surely making my emails less happy and more stoic would help me appear self-actualized and like everything I said was right even if it wasn’t.
But what they don’t teach you in finishing school is how to not sound like an axe murderer without the friendly buffer of exclamation points. We’re in a new era! Punctuation makes up for lost tone! When I started removing them from my emails, I sounded consistently flip and gruff, like my dad does via text message, which always stresses me out.
I do not want people to fear me. Likewise, I don’t want to sound unhinged, like I’ve had ten cups of coffee and am wearing a onesie. This leaves me in the hellish limbo that exists between the following:
Oh hey, I didn’t see you there! Welcome to this friendly message!
Sit the fuck down.
I’m glad we had a chance to catch up!
I loved seeing you and admire you so much!
I’m glad we had a chance to catch up.
I’m dead inside.
Fine by me!
I’m cool, I’m easy, I don’t have an opinion!
Fine by me.
I’m mad at you.
Thank you for the nice words!
Wow I’m seriously so flattered holy shit!
Thank you for the nice words.
I don’t give a fuck about you. Who is this again?
I’m so excited for you!
This is a huge deal for you, little one, and I’m overjoyed on your behalf!
I’m so excited for you.
You don’t deserve good fortune and are a bad person.
I am counting the minutes!!!
I’ve cleared out space in my freezer for your chopped up body.
In the past month I’ve spent more time than I’m willing to admit typing and deleting exclamation points, unsure of which evil I was more willing to hitch my wagon to. It’s been a big waste of time and energy; my cat’s fur has never been more matted for lack of TLC. And yet, my toiling has bred no answers. Everyone I ask says they suffer from the same problem. I even heard it lamented on a Longform podcast!
Do you have this issue? Please, ppl, I beg of you. Teach me to traverse this perilous spectrum from which I cannot escape. My career and general well-being depend on it!!!
Collage by Ana Tellez.