Friday, May 04, 2012

Of ems, ellipses and interrobangs

I know I tend to use many (too many?) exclamation points in my emails, though of late I've tried to resist temptation...  (The Concord Pastor confesses here to similar trials.)

Back in the day, when flecks of ink and the depth to which the nib sank into the paper could signal a writer's emotional state to an attentive reader, perhaps the exclamation point was used more discriminatingly.  Now that typescript has replaced handscript as the standard mode of written communication, emotional subtext requires either punctuation or a willingness on the part of writer — and reader — to engage with a vocabulary that's more nuanced.  It seems easier to agree that ;) means a wink than to wonder precisely how I'm wielding a word.  Are the overtones in that one word email "Brilliant!" enthusiastic, sarcastic, ironic, delighted? and what if it reads "BRILLIANT!"

Teh interwebs have brought us emoticons as a solution to the problem of a paucity of punctuation with which to close sentences:  . ! and ? cover a wide range, but with no subtlety.  My rummaging in the archives of 19th century chemical literature suggests, however, we don't so much invent, as rediscover (my apologies to Rodin).  Over the years quite a few non-standard punctuation marks that have served the same function as emoticons have come and gone. Perhaps some of these might be resurrected for more formal electronic communications?

Want to indicate a touch of irony or sarcasm?  Try the precontation point: "Brilliant⸮" (dates to the 16th century, therefore roughly the same age as the exclamation point) or the interrobang:  "Brilliant‽" (from the early 20th century, sometimes rendered:  "Brilliant?!")

I'd like to propose a way to deal more elegantly — or at least more compactly — with the proliferation of exclamation points:  n!  Thus we would have "Brilliant4!" instead of "Brilliant!!!!"   I think the former expresses a more stately sort of enthusiasm, something a 50-something mother could use without looking like a middle schooler.

What do you think?  How sparingly do you punctuate electronic communication?


  1. Yes! Well - I guess (under certain circumstances - that I have challenges of my own!!!

  2. I was told once we only get five exclamation points to use in our whole lifetime, so I've been deleting them ever since. But since emoticons are unlimited... ;-)

  3. Funny! or, Intriguing! or, Hmmmm! I've been thinking about the same thing!

    Seriously, my personal observations have been twofold of late. One is that I indeed often use an exclamation point, and have become accustomed to its use by others, as almost a marker of friendship and collaboration. I am trying to restrain myself, but when a friend made a comment on FB the other day and I responded with one which ended in a period, I felt that my own sentence conveyed sarcasm rather than the enjoyment in conversation that I had intended to communicate.

    Second, I have noticed that people, writing, events, whatever (how's that for exactitude?) are increasingly described as "Brilliant!" when they are, in fact, perhaps engaging and worthy of further discussion and engagement, but hardly on the order of Beethoven or Einstein.

    The high school English teacher who made the first serious contributions to my ability to write once told us that we were forbidden to use the word "unique," other than in a situation in which it would be an accurate description -- which situation would be unlikely ever to occur. I wish she were here now to contribute her acerbic wit to the plethora of brilliance that pervades the internet !!!

  4. I have been trying to use less exclamation points since a friend suggested the world was being over run with the buggers

  5. I've long ago used up my supply of exclamation points, if we were given only 5.

    I wonder how many words I type/write in a day? And what the ratio of ! to words is.... it's an answerable question, though I imagine doing the experiment on myself would change my habits.

  6. Anonymous11:11 AM

    Robin, in my own (guilty as charged!)I often use brilliant in the British sense. I'm not sure if that exonerates me, or simply pushes me more deeply into poseurdom!-Fran replying from phone

  7. I enjoy hearing the word "brilliant" in the British-sense, it's good to push the boundaries on language! And borrowing words from other spaces is a time-honored practice in English...

  8. I find the use of exponents a very scientific approach to the whole thing. But language is far from scientific. If I had my way, we'd have a whole system of fonts, bolds and italics to help us make our point. (Tongue in cheek? Use Comic Sans.)

  9. Fran, after I wrote that, I wondered: "British?" I realized that I have heard "brilliant" come out of Hermione's mouth, and I thought, "Maybe we've picked up another use of the word from Harry Potter?"

    I'd like to add an exclamation point but I don't dare.