Multiple Exclamation Points

The Mightiest—and Most Overused—Punctuation Mark

multiple exclamation marks
In Punctuation for Now, John McDermott observes that multiple exclamation points "are best left to schoolchildren and those in love for the first time.". (Brand New Images/Getty Images)

An exclamation point (!) is a mark of punctuation used after a word, phrase, or sentence that expresses a strong emotion. It ends emphatic statements, says "English Grammar & Punctuation," a reference guide. William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, in their famous "Elements of Style," say that: "The exclamation mark is to be reserved for after true exclamations and commands." And "Merriam-Webster's Guide to Punctuation and Style" notes that the exclamation point is used "to mark a forceful comment or exclamation." It is also called an exclamation mark or tellingly, in newspaper jargon, a shriek.

These sources and others may define it with different vocabulary, but they all agree on one thing: The exclamation point is possibly the most overused punctuation mark in the English language. Multiple exclamation points  (or marks)—two or, often, three exclamation marks (!!!) following a word or sentence—should be even rarer still in good writing.

History

The exclamation point was first used by printers at the end of the 15th century, according to Thomas MacKellar, in his 1885 book, "The American Printer: A Manual of Typography," who noted that the punctuation meant "admiration or exclamation" as well as "surprise, astonishment, rapture, and the like sudden emotions of the mind." The mark, itself, comes from Latin, says Smithsonian.com:

"In Latin, the exclamation of joy was io, where the i was written above the o. And, since all their letters were written as capitals, an I with an O below it looks a lot like an exclamation point."

It wasn’t until 1970 that the exclamation point had its own key on the keyboard, the Smithsonian notes, adding that before that you had to type a period, and then use the backspace to go back and stick an apostrophe above it.

When executives dictated to secretaries, they would say "bang" to indicate the exclamation point, leading to the term interbangnonstandard punctuation mark in the form of a question mark superimposed on an exclamation point (sometimes appearing as ?!).

 It is used to end a rhetorical question or a simultaneous question and exclamation. Some writers, then, began using multiple exclamation points as a logical outgrowth of the interbang and single exclamation mark to add even more emphasis to words, phrases, and sentences.

Purpose

The use of the exclamation point—and, even more so, multiple exclamation points—has been met with plenty of controversy and criticism. Smithsonian notes this less-than-pleased response by F. Scott Fitzgerald to the use of multiple exclamation points:

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

Author Elmore Leonard was even more incensed by their use:

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” 

Leonard also said that use of multiple exclamation points is the "sign of a diseased mind." Still, exclamation points do have a purpose in the English language, according to the late Rene "Jack" Cappon, a longtime editor at the Associated Press and author of "The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation." Cappon said that exclamation points are certainly not subtle; instead, they act like a "kettle drum," noisily calling readers' attention to a given word, phrase, or sentence.

Echoing the very earliest use of this punctuation mark, Cappon says you should use exclamation points to convey pain, fear, astonishment, anger, and disgust, as in:

“ 'Ouch! My toes!' cries one, a bowling ball dropped on his foot. 'Somebody help me!' screams a damsel in distress. 'Look, a real unicorn!' Astonishment. 'Get thee behind me, Satan!' Rage and disgust."

Cappon notes that you rarely run into emotional outbursts like these, so you should use single or multiple exclamation points sparingly. He and other grammar and punctuation experts point out that you should generally let the words speak for themselves, set off by a simple periodcomma, or semicolon. Otherwise, you risk damaging your credibility by constantly yelling at your readers, similar to someone screaming "fire" in a crowded theater, even when there is not a hint of smoke.

Rules for Using Exclamation Marks

Richard Bullock, Michal Brody, and Francine Weinberg note in the "The Little Seagull Handbook," a grammar, punctuation, and style guide used on many college campuses, that you should use exclamation points to express strong emotion or add emphasis to a statement or command. They give this example of when to use an exclamation point, from Susan Jane Gilman's "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless," who described seeing "The Rolling Stones" band member Keith Richards:

" 'Keith,' we shrieked as the car drove away. 'Keith, we love you!' "

Encountering a member of the iconic rock band—and the shrieking that accompanied the sighting—would, indeed, call for at least one exclamation point—and perhaps more!!!—to emphasize the excitement of the moment. Another example of when to use exclamation points is illustrated in this pithy quote from Tennessee Williams in "Camino Real."

"Make voyages! Attempt them! There's nothing else."

You can also use multiple exclamation points in informal or comic writing, or to express sarcasm, as in:

  •  I loved your last email! OMG did I LOVE it!!!

The point is that the writer of the above sentences didn't really love the email. She was being ironic, which the multiple exclamation points help to show. Additionally, David Crystal, in "Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation," gives these examples where the contexts dictate when exclamation marks would be acceptable, even expected:

  • Interjections - Oh!
  • Expletives - Damn!
  • Greetings - Happy Xmas!!!
  • Calls - Johnny!
  • Commands - Stop!
  • Expressions of surprise - What a mess!!!
  • Emphatic statements - I want to see you now!
  • Attention-getters - Listen carefully!
  • Loud speech in dialogue - I'm in the garden!
  • Ironic comments - He paid, for a change! or . . . for a change (!)
  • Strong mental attitudes -  "Hardly!" he thought

But there are many other instances where you should omit exclamation points, as in this example from "The Little Seagull Handbook."

"It was so close, so low, so huge and fast, so intent on its target that I swear to you, I swear to you, I felt the vengeance and rage emanating from the plane."
- Debra Fontaine, "Witnessing"

Bill Walsh, the late copy chief for the Washington Post, noted in "The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English" that you should omit exclamation points (and other punctuation marks) when they are, essentially, gimmicky "decorations" for company names. So, says Walsh, you would write Yahoo, not Yahoo!

"The Associated Press Stylebook" also notes that you place exclamation points within quote marks when they are part of the quoted material, as in:

  • "How wonderful!" he exclaimed.
  • "Never!" she shouted.

But place exclamation points outside of quotation marks when they are not part of the quoted material:

  • "I hated reading Spenser's "Faerie Queene"!

And never use other punctuation marks, such as a comma, after an exclamation point:

  • Wrong: "Halt!", the corporal cried.
  • Right: "Halt!" the corporal cried.

So, when using exclamation points remember that less is more. Use this punctuation mark—whether it be one, two, or three exclamation points—only when the context calls for it. Otherwise, let your prose speak for themselves and save the mighty exclamation point for extreme circumstances, for heaven's sake!!!