Bill Bennett

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Exclamation marks: Caution!

Exclamation marks, some people call them bangs, have almost no place in serious writing.

Tabloids use them in headlines. You may use exclamation marks in reported speech or where they form part of a name or title.

And that’s it.

It’s no accident many newspapers and publishing companies ban exclamation marks.

They don’t add drama.

They don’t improve poor writing.

Like laughing at your own jokes

Exclamation marks don’t tell readers a sentence was funny.

They may tell readers a sentence was supposed to be funny. That’s quite different.

In the newspaper business, the exclamation mark is sometimes known as a shriek or screamer. This gives a clue to why they best left on the shelf.

It is often used to add emphasis to sentences. It’s versatile, you’ll see it used to show surprise, anger or joy.

You’ll see it used far too often.

Fake hysteria

The exclamation mark is the punctuation equivalent of raising your voice – maybe hysterically. Hence the name ‘shriek’.

Here’s why you should avoid them:

  • They distract readers.
  • They are an excuse for lazy writing – funny or dramatic writing doesn’t need propping up.
  • Once people start using exclamation marks, they usually overuse them – which makes writing look amateur.
  • They hint at a gushing bygone world of “what-ho Jeeves!”,  “lashings of ginger beer!” and “golly gosh!”. Your readers will wonder if they’ve stepped into a time warp.
  • They make your writing seem inauthentic.

As an editor, I told a reporter working for me who used one in a story that was his year’s allocation gone.

I was only half-joking. If you must use exclamation marks, use them rarely. Once a year is too often.

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