Today, class, we shall be studying grammar. Recent guidelines from the Department of Education advises children to restrict their use of exclamation marks and advises teachers to only mark their use correctly at the end of sentences beginning with ‘what’ and ‘how’, for example ‘What a lovely day!’.
While I personally welcome the move (getting texts, emails and Facebook posts with one unnecessary exclamation mark is irksome enough but more than one is an unfriending/ghosting offence), I can’t help but feel that the Department of Education isn’t in a position to dictate correct grammar in the first place. Its recent notorious letter to a primary school teacher discussing her concerns about over-testing children is a case in point. Littered with spelling and grammatical errors, it was widely shared and ridiculed on social media and prompted the teacher to comment: “I am not disappointed by this letter, it has saved me planning one of my SPAG lessons and has also confirmed my suspicions that the Department for Education is not capable of meeting the standards expected of primary school children.” Quite.
So why has the DofE taken this step? Let’s take a brief stroll through the history of the mark to understand the context. Taken from the latin io meaning joy, the exclamation mark was first recorded in 1399 by an Italian named Coluccio Salutati. It does a fine job in conveying tone and intent, so much so Lichenstein turned it into an art form. Its use has changed significantly since 1399, obvs. Language is always the first thing to reflect cultural shifts – spoken language especially so. Children grow up adapting their language to the world around them and when that world involves technology and social media, the language has to reflect and adapt accordingly. ‘Text speak’ and acronyms are a law unto themselves and, for anyone over 35, often require translation. When you are dealing with a generation that is quite happy to do away with the use of vowels, grammar doesn’t really stand a chance. The Dof E has taken this step in a valiant attempt to save the subtleties of communication.
Subtle isn’t a word that you would think would be mentioned in a blog about the exclamation mark as it denotes an exclamation or a shout. With that in mind, read the following and think whether it sounds sincere: ‘So sorry I’m late! The train isn’t moving!’ or worse still: ‘So sorry I’m late!!!!! The train isn’t moving!!!’ There’s a reason that an editor I once worked with called them “screamers”. In a memorable exchange with a millennial, I once tried to explain the premise of the mark: “Every time you use it, imagine you are shouting at the person you are speaking to and decide whether that’s the impression you want to give.” To which his response was: “I’m using it to show I’m making a joke, if I want to show I’m shouting, I’ll just use caps…” Oh god, where do I even begin?
This leads on to the second, important point about ‘screamers’, they DO NOT denote humour. (Whoever started this needs to be dragged into the streets and shot #jokingnotjoking). Any good writer will tell you that you can’t make a dull statement more interesting simply by adding an exclamation mark. Sadly much of the sales and marketing you will see isn’t written by good writers. “We have so many offers you won’t know where to start!” is just one example. And once you notice it, you will see it happening everywhere. Whether it’s through laziness, a lack of writing skills, or ignorance, the exclamation mark is used incorrectly with such frequency that it makes you doubt your own sanity. So, setting aside its own grammar errors, the Department of Education should be applauded for at least attempting to restore some order with the next generation.
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” Misuse the exclamation mark and the joke’s on you.
For well -written, effective sales and marketing copy where grammar is not misused, look no further