“Thank you!!! We appreciate your business!!” writes a breathless customer service agent. “I’m sooo sorry!!!” writes an administrative assistant after making an error. “Are you sure??!!” inquires a warehouse employee.
Excessive punctuation, in the form of multiple exclamation marks, makes the writer seem over-excited. If you overuse this punctuation mark, readers may find you annoyingly enthusiastic – or wonder whether you are simply annoyed. Either way, the extra punctuation marks undermine the professional tone that you may be trying to achieve.
What led to this poly-punctuation trend? In the not-so-distant past, people expressed their feelings either in person or on the phone. Your colleagues could see your face, hear your voice, and determine how you felt. Now that so much of our communication is virtual, people are seeking new ways to express their tone. Enter the multiple exclamation marks.
Perhaps the logic goes like this: “If I use one exclamation mark, it shows I’m excited. If I use two exclamation marks, it will show I’m really excited.” And so it goes. We end up with a double, triple, and even quadruple exclaim to punctuate a simple thank you. Writers agonize over whether to use one or two exclamation marks and obsess over what it means if another person doesn’t include exclaims.
While I personally find multiple exclamation marks annoying, the question is whether this habit works. In recent LinkedIn polls, I asked people the following questions.
Which person seems to be the most grateful?
The consensus was that the single exclamation mark seemed most genuine. There were cultural differences, with some groups feeling that the double or triple exclamation marks showed more appreciation, but these feelings were in the minority.
Similarly, when I asked which person seems the most sorry:
Again, the single exclamation mark scored highest for sincerity.
When writers use too many exclamation marks, readers may feel they protest too much. I’m not just sorry, I’m sorry!!!. The additional punctuation loses its impact and may even seem false. The person who uses three exclamation marks does not seem three times more sorry than the person who used one.
Another reason to minimize or avoid using multiple exclamation marks is that they may convey two opposite meanings: excitement or annoyance. If you make a mistake at work and write to your manager, “I’m sorry!!!,” she might wonder if you are genuinely sorry, defensive, or actually saying, “I’m not sorry–you shouldn’t have asked me to do that job in the first place.” True, the reader can usually tell from the context whether the writer is excited or annoyed. So when a supervisor writes, “I asked you to make sure the storeroom was clean!” his team member is unlikely to think he was just excited; he will think the supervisor is annoyed. And if the supervisor writes, “I asked you to make sure the storeroom was clean!!,” the team member will cringe from the reprimand. Nevertheless, I wonder about the wisdom of over-using a tool that can equally express delight and dismay.
In all written communication, we need to use the right tool for the job. The job of punctuation marks is to orchestrate our reader’s attention, telling him which words belong together and which are separate. If we want to end a sentence, we use a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. So that’s the job of an exclamation mark: to end a sentence that has an exclamatory nature.
It is not punctuation’s job to express the full range of your ideas and your tone. That’s what words are for. Once we begin to use language in all its variety and fullness, we open expansive opportunities for expressing ourselves. Like emojis, excess punctuation marks are shortcuts to self-expression. If we are in a hurry (and who isn’t?), we may be tempted to tack on an extra punctuation mark and avoid saying what we mean. But by doing so, we short-change our opportunity to build relationships with others.
For example, in the situation described above, you could write to your supervisor, “I’m sorry that I didn’t finish that report on time. It won’t happen again.” Or “I’m so sorry the report was late. Three managers assigned me tasks that were due at the same time, and I did the best I could. If that happens again, I’ll speak to you.” Would these expressions do more for your relationship with your manager than simply writing, I’m sorry!!?
Language is a beautiful, infinitely varied tool. It’s no accident that there are thousands of words, but only a handful of punctuation marks. Let the words do their job and keep punctuation for its purpose.