Exclamation Point: What Is It and When to Use It

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

exclamation mark
"Cut out all these exclamation points," F. Scott Fitzgerald advised. "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.". (Martin Diebel/Getty Images)

The exclamation point (!) is a mark of punctuation used after a word, phrase, or sentence that expresses a strong emotion. Also called an exclamation mark or (in newspaper jargon) a shriek.

The exclamation point was first used in English in the 16th century. However, the mark didn't become a standard feature on keyboards until the 1970s.

In Shady Characters (2013), Keith Houston notes that the exclamation point is a mark of punctuation that acts "largely as vocal stage direction," implying "a surprised, rising tone of voice."

From the Latin, "to call"

Examples and Observations

  • "'Ho-mer!' she cried. 'Pig's out! Lurvy! Pig's out! Homer! Lurvy! Pig's out. He's down there under that apple tree.'"
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952) 
  • "Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth!"
    (Henry David Thoreau, Journal)
  • "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."
    (Katherine Mansfield, Notebooks, Oct. 14, 1922)
  • "Make voyages! Attempt them! There's nothing else."
    (Tennessee Williams, Camino Real)
  • "All I can say about life is, Oh God, enjoy it!"
    (Bob Newhart)
  • "If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it!"
    (Jonathan Winters)
  • Warnings!
    - "The exclamation mark is an aid to good English. It is not a prop for bad writing.

    "A sentence that falls flat without an exclamation mark is a flat sentence. The exclamation mark will not inject drama into it. It must be re-cast."
    (Keith Waterhouse, Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, rev. ed. Revel Barker, 2010)

    - "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful."
    (Elmore Leonard)

    - "So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading 'laughter' to a studio audience."
    (Miles Kingston, Punch, 1976)
  • Other Uses of the Exclamation Point
    - "For the most part [the exclamation point] is used pretty much the same in all European languages—that is, to mark surprise or astonishment, or as the final mark of an actual exclamation or sudden noise ('Gee, Dad, it's a Wurlitzer!' 'Oh, look—a ship, in the air!' 'Whoah, Nellie!' 'Ka-POW!") but there are some subtle variants: In German, an exclamation point may follow the salutation in a letter, where English would use a comma, colon, or dash: Liebster Fritz! ('Dearest Fritz--'); and in German and French it follows imperatives that would not necessarily have an exclamation point in English . . .. As with the question mark . . ., an inverted exclamation point has been standard punctuation introducing Spanish interjections since the 18th century.

    "The fact that dialogue balloons in comic books may seem to have an awful lot of exclamation points in them says at least something about the whiz-bang nature of plot and dialogue in this artistic genre, but a more practical reason is that printers in the early 19th century, using the workaday offset presses of the time, found that periods by themselves tended to disappear, while exclamation points remained largely legible."
    (Alexander Humez and Nicholas D. Humez, On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World. Oxford University Press, 2008)

    - "Here's a short selection of contexts where the [exclamation] mark would be routinely used these days:
    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
    A complete list of situations would be impossibly long, as it would need to identify all the emotions that could motivate the use of the mark."
    (David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2015)
  • Lemony Snicket on Exclamation Points
    "There are many, many things that are difficult in this life, but one thing that isn't difficult at all is figuring out whether someone is excited or not when they open a present. If someone is excited, they will often put exclamation points at the ends of their sentences to indicate their excited tone of voice. If they say 'Oh!' for instance, the exclamation point would indicate that the person is saying 'Oh!' in an excited way, rather than simply saying 'Oh,' with a comma after it, which would indicate that the present is somewhat disappointing."
    (Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid. HarperCollins, 2007)
  • The Lighter Side of Exclamation Marks
    Elaine: I was just curious why you didn't use an exclamation point?
    Jake: What are you talking about?
    Elaine: See, right here you wrote "Myra had the baby," but you didn't use an exclamation point. I mean if one of your close friends had a baby and I left you a message about it, I would use an exclamation point.
    Jake: Well, maybe I don't use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do.
    ("The Sniffing Accountant," Seinfeld, 1993)
  • Homer: I had a feeling it was too good to be true. Every time you get a million dollars, something queers the deal.
    Lisa: I don't think real checks have exclamation points.
    (The Simpsons)
  • "A man who wears evening dress all the time, lurks in the shadows and occasionally kills people. Then he sends notes, writing maniacal laughter. Five exclamation marks again, I notice. We have to ask ourselves: is this the career of a sane man?"
    (Terry Pratchett, Maskerade. HarperCollins, 1995)

Pronunciation: ecks-kla-MAY-shun point

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