How many exclamation points does it take to exclaim something? One, a human of sound mind and a decent grasp of punctuation might say. The exclamation point denotes exclamation. That is its point. One should suffice.
But, on the internet, it often doesn’t. Not anymore. Digital communication is undergoing exclamation-point inflation. When single exclamation points adorn every sentence in a business email, it takes two to convey true enthusiasm. Or three. Or four. Or more.
I noticed this in my own social circles recently. Multiple exclamation points were popping up in mundane places, not attached to hyperbole or any kind of frenzied emotion. A simple work email might yield a “Sounds good!!!” I find myself doing it, too.
“All of these quirks of social media—that would include exclamation points, and all caps, and repetition of letters, those are the three main ones that show enthusiasm—people use more of them,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.
This sort of inflation is a natural linguistic phenomenon that regularly happens to words, like how awesome was once reserved for that which truly struck awe into a quavering heart and is now scarcely more than a verbal thumbs up. But this time it’s happening to punctuation.
It wasn’t so long ago that a single exclamation point still felt extreme. One grammar guide from 2005 says the exclamation point “indicates extreme pain, fear, astonishment, anger, disgust, or yelling.” At journalism school, I was told that you get one exclamation point to use in your entire career, so you should use it wisely. You could, perhaps, spend your one exclamation point on a headline like “WAR OVER!” but nothing less would merit one. (I’m sure I’ve already spent beyond my means, don’t email me.) The writer Elmore Leonard had a similar rule for fiction: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose,” he once wrote, though he apparently didn’t abide by that.
There was never any shortage of exclamation points online, nor a shortage of curmudgeons to bemoan their ubiquity. But there were some who welcomed our enthusiastic new punctuation overlords. David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, in their 2007 email etiquette guide Send, were particularly prescient. “The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email’s essential lack of tone,” they wrote. So long as email failed to convey affect, they predicted, “we will continue to sprinkle exclamation points liberally throughout our emails.”
They were right. Eventually, most people seemed to stop resisting their rise. In 2012, a Boston Globe columnist found himself giving in to the pressure. “I could feel the shame creeping into my fingertips the first few times I started adding this faux emphasis to pleasantries,” he wrote. “Now there is no turning back.”
Indeed, there is not. And it’s because somewhere along the line, the meaning of the mark itself shifted.
“Once exclamation points were scary and loud; they made you jump,” Heidi Julavits wrote in her 2015 memoir The Folded Clock. “You were in trouble when the exclamation points came out. They were the nunchucks of punctuation. They were a bark, a scold, a gallows sentence. Not any longer. The exclamation point is lighthearted, even whimsical.”
Much like awesome once served a greater purpose, the exclamation point has been downgraded from a shout of alarm or intensity to a symbol that indicates politeness and friendliness. As Shipley and Schwalbe put it in their guide: “Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth.” And that’s what we use them for now.
“The single exclamation mark is being used not as an intensity marker, but as a sincerity marker,” says Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who studies online communication. “If I end an email with ‘Thanks!,’ I’m not shouting or being particularly enthusiastic; I’m just trying to convey that I’m sincerely thankful, and I’m saying it with a bit of a social smile.”
The pressure to use exclamation points can sometimes feel stifling—a trap Tannen calls “enthusiasm constraint.” The belts on this particular straitjacket are tighter for women, as many studies have shown; exclamation points can be a sort of emotional labor women have to perform to be liked, especially in the workplace. But since so much communication now occurs in text form, with no tone, body language, or facial expressions adorning it, it makes sense that we’ve found another way to smooth interactions. And it seems this meaning of the exclamation point has stabilized, and is intuitively understood by most internet users.
“It’s been totally normalized—at least in my view,” says Jonny Sun, a doctoral student at MIT who studies online communities. “I think the single exclamation point is now very acceptable.”
One could say that Sun is professionally enthusiastic. He is best known for his Twitter account, where he mixes silly jokes with bittersweet humor and earnest aphorisms. He also wrote a graphic novel based on his Twitter. And he uses a lot of exclamation points, especially when he replies to friends or fans. A single one, he says, is so expected at this point that it doesn’t really feel sincere anymore.
“I feel like it’s a stand-in and it doesn’t really connote an authentic emotion,” he says. “A single exclamation point is sort of like: Here’s me showing that I’m being nice and cordial. But two exclamation points would be authentic excitement.”
McCulloch is friends with Sun on Twitter, and she told me she thinks she’s recently picked up the habit of using multiple exclamation points from him. “A year or two ago I would never have used multiple exclamation marks,” she said.
This is how that sort of language creep happens. Generally, it goes from younger people to older, from women to men, and from casual contexts to more formal ones, according to Tannen. “I would say [multiple exclamation points are] becoming more a part of our everyday idioms,” she says. “It’s moving from very private conversation to more public conversation. Rather than friends using it, the workplace would be an example of that.”
After we spoke, McCulloch ran a Twitter poll asking: “If I wanted to convey genuine enthusiasm to you, how many exclamation marks would I need?” After nearly 800 votes, the winner was three. McCulloch did a couple follow-up polls, too, asking the same question if the exclamation point was at the end of a sentence, or if it was sent just on its own. The spread looked a little different for each, but in both cases, most people thought one wasn’t enough.
If I wanted to convey genuine enthusiasm to you, how many exclamation marks would I need?— Gretchen McCulloch (@GretchenAMcC) June 22, 2018
UPDATED POLL— Gretchen McCulloch (@GretchenAMcC) June 22, 2018
Genuine enthusiasm at the end of a sentence:
UPDATED POLL 2— Gretchen McCulloch (@GretchenAMcC) June 22, 2018
Genuine enthusiasm all by itself:
So where does it end? What happens if three exclamation points eventually seem like little more than a friendlier period?
“Probably it ends with switching to a different type of punctuation,” McCulloch says. If the exclamation point is working as a sincerity marker, once people tire of it, “maybe smileys will [become] more acceptable in business contexts.”
This tracks with an interesting theory Sun has about the relationship between sincerity and informal language online. On social media, writing in all caps or using no capitalization at all both feel more genuine than using proper capitalization. “I feel like sincerity, especially online is breaking down any formal affect that we’ve adopted with language,” Sun says. “Sincerity now online is lowercase, quickly typed so it’s fine if there are typos. But then typos become part of it. To me, keysmashing is the most sincere form of excitement.”
When informality becomes linked to sincerity, there’s room for it to cross over into formerly formal communication. You’re not chatting your colleague in all caps or peppering your email with exclamation points to be rude or overly familiar. You’re doing it to show you really mean what you’re saying.
But perhaps the most genuine enthusiasm requires no text at all. “Sometimes in place of a statement, I’ll just send a bunch of exclamation points in response to someone, with no words,” Sun says. “I think that’s just to denote pure excitement or pure joy.”