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?





Related Care2 Coverage

Nobel Laureate Says Women Can’t Write As Well As He Can

Bilingualism Confronts Olympic Hurdles

Education: What do we teach and why?

Photo by donnamarijne


Josephine T.
Josephine T6 years ago

Dawn H. - I can explain why some people write with initial caps on every word. Some of them are dyslexic, and it helps them to spell correctly, space correctly, punctuate correctly, and get their words in the right order.

It bugs me, too, but for their sake, I'll deal with it. It's better than not hearing from them at all.

I completely agree with your other complaints.

Dawn H.
Dawn H6 years ago

(...cont) Reading makes such a huge difference in comprehension and in getting a much better understanding of the proper use of the English language in general. 
All I see my niece read are books for kids half her age, status updates and photo comments on fb, and text messages (they are the worst of all if you ask me). 
Another big annoyance is the constant misuse of simple things like, "there, they're and their" (and thay), "your, you're," "where, wear," "whether, weather" (and they do wheather too), "our, are," "son, sun," and on and on. They just don't get it... And if I correct them I am told, "yeah I know, I'm just being lazy on fb." 
Well, I can be pretty darn lazy myself. That doesn't mean that I just randomly use words that are completely wrong, don't make sense, and completely change the meaning of what is being said to something that probably doesn't work at all. 
I really think we should insist on turning off the Internet, turning off cell phones, off with the TV, and make them actually read so they can become better aquatinted with proper English and not the shorthand crap they use on social networking sites and texting. 
Please, please let us band together and save the next generations and the language we are passing down to them. Let's not let the next generation be worse off than the last. With things like computers and spell check and being able to type much faster than we can write, etc, there really is no reason for them not to

Dawn H.
Dawn H6 years ago

What really bothers me is the dumbing down of America (maybe the world?) now that we almost all use keyboards, cellphones and other devices (I avoided the serial comma there, I learned in high school around 1996 or 97 that it was unnecessary and not to use it anymore).
I'll use me niece (who has lived with me for the past year but sadly is returning back to AZ next week) as an example.
In general, she is a decent writer. She especially likes to write poetry (typical 16yo girl stuff about love and boys and such). Well, as she has advanced in grade level, I have noticed her writing and grammar remain stagnant. I've thought a bit about it and ultimately I blame the severe overuse of texting and facebooking (they don't even use email anymore, it baffles me).
They just write in shorthand, completely ignoring grammar, rules and even common place stuff which truly makes them look like they can't write to save their lives... I must confess that it's very frustrating and hard to read.
Another problem is that kids don't read anymore. I heard somewhere that the more you read the better writer you will become. As someone who didn't read much when I was little, but did after I went into the army and when I started college, I notice a huge difference in my vocabulary, being able to recognize proper word usage (not perfect but I've gotten a lot better) and simple punctuation. Reading makes such a huge difference in comprehension and in getting a much better understanding of the prop

Dawn H.
Dawn H6 years ago

What Really Bugs Me Is When My Niece And Her Friends Type LIKE THIS!!!

I mean seriously, what is the point in that? At least with all caps I can understand they intend to put emphasis on it or shout, but the capitalizing every single word drives me completely crazy.

I have a degree in English (as well as history) so I guess I've kind of learned to write both MLA and AP style. I prefer AP style I think, for it's simplicity and ease of use (redundant?).

Someone below posted about what (!), (!!) and (!!!) mean, but, if my memory serves me right, I believe that post is wrong. Typically you would use one if exclaiming something with some emphasis, "omg!" but I don't believe you ever really are supposed to use two (!!). I think you go from one to three (!!!). "Omg!!!"
Also, using it with question marks to exclaim is supposed to be "!?!" not the typical ??!?!?? Or !?!?!?!?! and other such styles like we so typically see used these days by kids and Internet users everywhere.
When it comes to Facebook and such, I do find myself correcting a lot of people. That is not to say I write perfectly, because I don't. But, I write a lot better than most of my peers, and unlike so many, I do care if my writing looks like $#! .
That said, please forgive any typos, I'm on my iPhone which frequently changes words to other words that make no sense.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Christine S, I tend to try to use "phonetic" spelling to denote sarcasm, perhaps swap s's with z's, or throw in w's for "baby talk". and wedge them between multiple quotation marks

well, you can do that to be condescending too.

Ernie Miller
william Miller6 years ago

Hell I speak American not English and here we use lots of them !!! but I cant even spell right so I am going to be bashed no matter where I tread.

Joris Stuyck
Joris Stuyck6 years ago

An observation on incorrect use of the semicolon:

Kristina C.'s third paragraph begins: "Yes, I’m referring to matters seemingly, and admittedly, trivial; to proper punctuation."

Semicolons are used to separate two related elements equal in construction (e.g., nouns, phrases, sentences). The misplaced semicolon in the sentence above muddies its meaning.

Christine S.

I think it is hard to convey sarcasm or playful intent without throwing in a few extra exclamation points, or other symbols of punctuation where emoticons might be too informal....

Irene P.
Irene P6 years ago

Thank you for the article!!!!! : D

J C Bro
J C Brou6 years ago

How intriguing is it to wonder about punctuation's usefulness in these times.