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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Good Article!

Via Arts & Letters Daily, here is a fine article on the revival (and overuse?!) of the exclamation mark.  The author suggests that the rise of ! is a creature of the Internet age.  He quotes a recent book on the etiquette of email, which notes as a possible explanation that "Email is without affect . . . It has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be."

That seems about right to me!  Email, and other forms of online writing, lack any accompanying visual or aural cues to help one interpret a person's tone; all bloggers know, through painful experience, that it is often difficult to convey things like sarcasm effectively in this medium.  At the same time, the usual short length of non-Horwitzian blog posts (let alone emails) deprives one of the opportunity to use greater length as a substitute for the lack of these cues.  Hence, the rise of the exclamation mark.

I'd add one other explanandum.  Email conversations have a way of dragging on.  You think: "I wrote Person X to ask what time the meeting is.  They wrote back and said '3 o'clock.'  Should I write back and say thanks?  Will they write back and say 'You're welcome?'  Can I just close the door on this conversation, or would the failure to respond be too peremptory?  Better safe than sorry."  An exclamation mark can sometimes nip these things in the bud by putting an enthusiastically polite spin on your correspondence the first time around.

In any event -- read the article!  And note that the Pos sometimes uses exclamation marks very effectively!   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 5, 2009 at 05:10 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I love a good x-mark, though it may have a more robust modern history than the authors allege. I am reminded of 80s R&B pop singer Al B. Sure!, who included the ! as part of his official stage name.

Unrelated, the Japanese convience store chain Famima!! (both !s part of the original name) is making inroads into the LA area, though it doesn't seem particularly popular. The only reason I'm even aware of this fact is the store's use of multiple x-marks.

Posted by: Dave | May 5, 2009 11:31:12 PM

I'd like to suggest a technological contributing cause: Typography, and/or the lack thereof! (NB I'm an old-school computer user; somewhere, I still have my DARPAnet login data, and I honestly believe that if humanity had been meant to use a GUI nobody would have invented punch cards.)

Until recently -- with the rise of a disturbing series of largely incompatible HTML e-mail systems -- e-mail has been plain text. That means that ONE COULD ONLY SHOW EMPHASIS BY SHOUTING (all caps), or by interpolating other symbols _instead of proper italics_ or *bold text*. That took away some of writers' limited ability to express sarcasm, etc. in text... and the evils of HTML e-mail as a spam/virus/trojan paradise keep some of us reading still in plain-text format. The less said about "scare quotes" and what they do to both readability and data-processing systems, the better... although the NYT seems not to have figured out yet that there is an italic font in the typeface, and misuses quotation marks around all titles.

My solution -- such as it is -- has been to introduce the plain-text equivalant of the most shameful omission from HTML: the SARCASM /SARCASM tags. It's usually good for a laugh, anyway, and it beats emoticons. Further, it also makes it just a little bit harder to take sarcasm out of context -- which, in the end, is the real problem with e-mail threads.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | May 6, 2009 11:28:41 AM

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