Exclamation Points, Serial Commas: Good, Bad or Unnecessary?
Is the use of exclamation points, especially in email and texts, reaching epidemic proportions?
Ought the Oxford or “serial” comma to go the way of the dodo?
Yes, I’m referring to matters seemingly, and admittedly, trivial; to proper punctuation. Sunday’s New York Times asked if, in our efforts to give a human touch of emotion to our various digital communications, we aren’t, in near-blasphemic contradiction of hallowed rules of classic style manuals, over-indulging in exclamation points.
In their book “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better,” David Shipley and Will Schwalbe say that the exclamation point was originally reserved for an actual exclamation (“My goodness!” or “Good grief!”) but that they have become unexpected champions of this maligned punctuation. “We call it the ur emoticon,” Mr. Schwalbe said in a recent phone conversation. “In an idealized world, we would all be able to do what our English teachers told us to do, which is to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar.”
In an age when we’re trying to pack in our every latest thought into 140 characters or less, and often with only a thumb on a micro-keyboard while standing in the check-out line, it seems we’ve come to need exclamation points as a quick shorthand for sending that extra zing, oh yes! Says novelist Meg Wolitzer:
“I think I first got interested in the exclamation point while watching the old Batman TV show as a kid. Kablam! Kapow! In a way, the cartoon aspect of this emphatic spatter of punctuation has stayed with me. I still feel a little uneasy when I use it, although I sometimes do use it because it feels appropriately sprightly.”
Exclamation points do seem to add that little Tiggerish — !? — spring and bounce (!) to a sentence; to offer proof that you, a real flesh-and-blood human being, are texting/emailing/Tweeting, not some auto-bot. With so much of our communicating with each other occurring through the written word — whether, again, ia email, text, Tweet, etc. — perhaps it’s not surprising that people can get quite passionate about matters of punctuation.
As the Guardian reports, a big old row broke out last week on Twitter after “it was mistakenly reported that publishers Oxford University Press had elected to put its beloved punctuation mark out to pasture.” The punctuation mark in question is the Oxford or “serial” comma, which Oxford University’s PR department had announced it will not longer be using. OUP, though, will.
A serial comma, as the Guardian explains, “only appear[s] after the penultimate item in a list of three or more objects, and even then only as and when the writer feels it necessary.” You won’t see the serial comma here at Care2.com as we follow AP style. I will confess that I use the little extra squiggle in my own writing; I guess I favor it for adding a little pause, a sprinkle of precision and lessening of semantic confusion. I am not, though, inclined to go all doctrinaire about commas, dashes or explanation points. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not use any punctuation (which is an innovation of the medieval period), wrote in all capital letters and left no spaces between words. Plus, the Romans used U and V interchangeably:
(That’s the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris (“I sing of arms and the man who first from the shores of Troy”).
As Linda Holmes (who also is partial to serial commas) says at NPR:
The balancing act between how much rule-making you like in language and how much you like language to evolve naturally isn’t necessarily the point of the serial comma debate (to me, the reasons to keep it have absolutely nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with actual utility), but that’s where almost any discussion of almost any arcane point invariably winds up. Language is alive, you see, and it changes, and its beauty lies in its ability to be shaped by an entire society that calls upon its collective wisdom and experience to create a means of communication that accomplishes what it needs to AND NO THAT DOESN’T MAKE “IRREGARDLESS” OKAY AND STOP USING “LITERALLY” TO MEAN “FIGURATIVELY” I AM BEGGING YOU.
Here I was thinking Holmes — she is quite passionate about her preference for the serial comma — would be sure to use an exclamation point to make her point. But nothing spells emphasis like ALL CAPS, no?
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