Are Exclamation Marks Killing Us With Kindness?

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“PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW WE DID!!!” reads a receipt from the Carl's Jr. Drive Thru. “HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!” exclaims a Toyota service center receipt. “TOILET PAPER ONLY IN TOILET!!” says a sign in a public restroom.

Courtesy of a blog called Excessive Exclamation, these examples intend to illustrate how overused exclamation marks have become. Like the boy who cried wolf, the anti-exclamation crowd argues, constant shouting in written communication detracts from the meaning of our words. Some signs featured on the blog include six or more exclamation marks.

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But exclamation marks don’t necessarily indicate the end of the linguistic world as we know it, some experts say. Language is always changing, and exclamation marks are just one example of how we alter the way we speak and write to foster social connections and adapt to changing modes of communication.

“Language changes,” said Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University In Washington, D.C., and author of "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World." “If everyone else is doing it, no matter what you believe you should do, you end up doing it, too. In e-mails, I find myself using far more single exclamation points than I would three or four years ago, because everyone else does it to me.”

Back in the olden days, in the early 2000s, when texting was only called SMS and ubiquitous iPhones were still years away, mobile phone messages were nearly devoid of exclamation marks because typing in any kind of punctuation was a huge pain, Baron said.

It took tapping through several screens to get to the periods and apostrophes, so typing phrases like “I will” was easier than shortening to “I’ll.” As a result, text communication was actually more formal than casual speech.

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Around that time, instant messaging was more popular than texting in the United States. And even though punctuation is easily accessible on computer keyboards, abbreviations and emoticons were scarce in early IMs, Baron found in a 2003 study. In general, people used IM’s to say what they wanted to say.

With their larger screens and keyboards, smartphones made it much easier to add punctuation, emoticons and more recently, emoji characters. These symbols of emotion spread quickly, particularly among teenage girls.

Studies, including Baron’s work, repeatedly show that girls and young women in a variety of countries use their phones for strengthening social connections more often than boys do. Girls also use more exclamation points and emoticons. In interviews, Baron said, teenage girls have complained that the texts they received from boys didn’t express enough emotion.

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