Anxious About Exclamation Points? You’re Not Alone

Do you regularly use exclamation points when texting and writing email? When someone responds to you without an exclamation point, do they sometimes come across as cold and abrupt?

A story published last month in The Wall Street Journal examined the feeling of email and text anxiety caused by the new “tyranny of the exclamation point.”

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It’s a topic that’s been touched on in modern life, even making its way into popular culture: in a 1993 “Seinfeld” episode, Elaine argues with a boyfriend after he doesn’t include an exclamation point to emphasize exciting news.

There’s also a 2009 episode of “The Office” in which Jim asks Dwight why he didn’t use an exclamation point in a “Happy Birthday” banner for fellow coworker Kelly.

Dwight’s response: “It’s not like she discovered a cure for cancer.”

“Even though it’s just a punctuation mark, the exclamation point is actually used the same way as a smiley face to indicate emotion or stress,” said Randall Iden, faculty director for the master of science in communication program at Northwestern University School of Communication. “And that leads to the person wanting to put in two exclamation points.”

Iden, who teaches a program focused on strategic communication in organizations, said he’s noticed a similar phenomenon with the question mark.

“A friend of mine was complaining about their boss recently, saying every time the boss sent an email asking a question, she used two question marks, and that was offensive to my friend,” he said, adding the “punctuation anxiety” stems partly from the recipient not understanding the “emotive state of the writer.”

Iden joins us to discuss the punctuation phenomenon.

10 Punctuation Tips from Randall Iden for Work-Related Email

1. Know the rules of standard punctuation, even if you don’t use it all the time.

2. In more formal business conservations, use standard punctuation.

3. Though the battle rages on, standard practice is to use one space after a period.

4. Use apostrophes correctly. Proper nouns don’t need apostrophes for the plural form, unless you’re indicating a possessive.

5. Don’t overuse commas.

6. One exclamation point is enough. The exclamation point should indicate emphasis and not emotion. Therefore, there’s no need to have degrees of emphasis. Example: “Please ensure that the shipment goes out on time. We can’t be late!”

7. One question mark is enough.

8. Use words or emojis to convey emotion, not punctuation.

9. Don’t use punctuation as “coded communication.” Be transparent.

10. Err on the side of using proper punctuation and full sentences in business communication.

Related stories:

5 Tips for Using Emoji at the Office

Fake News, Feminism, #MeToo: The 2017 Words of the Year

Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition: New Rules for ‘Email,’ ‘They’

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