Exclamation points: Bad form or good manners?

Exclamation points: Bad form or good manners?

The exclamation point, long despised by literary giants and English teachers alike, has emerged as a near mandatory ingredient in modern written communications. Some recent research supports the idea that leaving them out of personal email and text messages might even make you sound sarcastic or rude.

So how does this apply to how we write at work?

No one is arguing that your annual report to shareholders needs more exclamation marks. (Imagine reading, “Our fourth quarter profits were up 13%!” I can’t imagine a case where that would be a good idea.) And no one is saying that messages to co-workers, employees, and customers should be as informal as a text to your old college roommate.

Even with these corners, there is a huge grey area to navigate. After some thought, I set out to define some general principles that might help.

My first principle is: “Don’t be rude.” It’s a pretty obvious place to start. Good manners are always good business. But this principle also contains an admission that there are some situations where exclamation points are acceptable. If the choice is between sounding rude or following established principles of good writing, then there really isn’t any choice at all. (As an exclamation point purest, admitting and coming to terms with this is an ongoing struggle.)

My second principle is: “Make them count.

Imagine this. A GM sends out a mail highlighting big wins from the last quarter. Since there are a lot of them, every paragraph includes two or three exclamation marks. By the fifth and sixth, they have lost their punch. By the seventh and eighth, they are working against the writer.

By contrast, when a VP replies with a simple “Awesome results! Let’s keep it up and close the year strong!” the multiple exclamation points are just fine. They convey excitement and strengthen the call to action.

This leads me to my last principle: “Never use more than three. Ever!”

As I said, I have a hard time using exclamation points even in the most informal circumstances. While I am willing to keep up with the times, I feel some limit is still needed. After much research, I have yet to find a situation where I could not get by with three or less.

If you need a way to remind yourself of this principle, call to mind these famous words from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

“…then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.”

[A classic. I considered editing the bit about always moving from two to three, but I’m sure you get the idea.]

So let’s recap. When you find yourself unsure of what to do, remember these three principles:

  1. Don’t be rude.
  2. Make good use of them.
  3. Keep it to three.

Hope this helps!


team Zum