Victor Hugo may hold the distinction of initiating the tersest telegram exchange of all time. “?” the author is said to have cabled to his publisher, inquiring about the sales of Les Misérables. Soon, he received his reply: “!”
The book was doing well.
Today, mediated by cables that are fiber-optic rather than telegraphic, the pair’s conversation would likely employ much less economy of expression. At the very least, the publisher might throw a “!!!!” to the expectant author.
The Internet offers us nearly infinite space, a structural fact that is manifest in our approaches to punctuation. “What??????” we ask on Facebook, to express our surprise. “OK............” we write in e‑mails, to convey our ambivalence. On the blog Excessive Exclamation!!, which documents such things, a menu advertises “Prime Rib Saturday!!!!”—the quartet of marks extravagant and yet, given the event in question, probably appropriate.
Call this what you will—exclamatory excess, punctuation inflation, the result of the Internet’s limitless expanse—it is everywhere. We have become a nation of promiscuous punctuators. In a paper published in 2006 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Carol Waseleski noted that exclamation points “rarely function as markers of excitability”; instead, they may function as “markers of friendly interaction.” But when a single point denotes basic human warmth, more points are needed to convey enthusiasm (!!), even more to convey excitement (!!!), and more still to convey giddiness (Prime Rib Saturday!!!!). The same holds for question marks and even ellipses: more marks are required to add emotional coloring to words rendered in black and white.