Have We Hit Peak Punctuation? :(

The twilight of exclamatory excess

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.

However! There is reason to think that our age of promiscuity will be short-lived—that the punctuational pendulum will swing back in the direction of single marks, or no marks at all. We may well have reached peak punctuation.

It’s not just that, as some scholars have argued, language naturally bends toward brevity. And it’s not just that—as Keith Houston, the author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, pointed out to me—wanton punctuation is now often used for purely ironic purposes. It’s also that, if one purpose of punctuation is to add nuance to text, we no longer need to rely on traditional marks alone. We now invest CAPITALIZATION with its own kind of punctuational force. Our use of emoji grows ever more nuanced (see Emoji Dick, which retells Melville’s novel through … well, you know). We suffix our sentences with reaction gifs.

In fact, one of the biggest changes we’re seeing now, according to Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is a shift from purely lexical communications to image-based ones. “I do think that there’s an evolution for young people to use images more and words less,” she told me. Which is good news for human expression, and potentially less-good news for the soon-to-be-humbled exclamation mark. Sorry, little guy ☹.