Just italicize it: The exclamation point should be abolished

Illustration of two women in a tug-of-war with an exclamation point.
Jericho Tang/Staff

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I had never met my roommate in person before that first day of orientation in August 2018, unpacking luggage and rearranging furniture in our new square-shaped home. We had communicated over text since July, though, when we found out we were officially roommates. Later in the semester, when we became better friends, my roommate told me she thought I was very mean before she met me because that was how I came off over text.

This surprised me since I had been pretty strategic in my language when texting her that summer to ensure that I sounded like the ideal roommate — casual, calm and cool. The words weren’t the problem, she told me. She noticed that I never once used an exclamation point. 

The exclamation point comes from the Latin word meaning “exclamation of joy,” denoted by an “I” stacked over an “O.” Over time, the exclamation point has taken on a bigger meaning than just stressing importance: In its journey to the 21st century, the punctuation mark has become childish, not only emphasizing the sentence that precedes it, but also emphasizing sexism in society. I think it should be abolished.

The punctuation mark comes off childish, mimicking the excitement we felt as preteens planning our upcoming trip to Disneyland, composing a list of which rides we would have to hit with a smattering of exclamation points.

Nowadays, when we read an exclamation point, we hear the voice in our head rise at the end of the sentence with mock happiness. For example: “Thanks for your help!” versus “Thanks for your help.” The first option seems nicer — the inflection the exclamation point inspires comes off kinder, as opposed to the second option (the period) that sounds much more somber.

But the tone brought on by the exclamation point is not of genuine happiness; it’s a tone of inauthenticity, of someone who is using a punctuation mark to fit in with society’s modern idea that a sentence without one is mean.

The exclamation point effect is not wide-ranging, however. In the article, “Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication” by Carol Waseleski, a study concluded that female-identifying people used exclamation points at least twice as more than male-identifying people. In certain cases, the disparity came up to a 70% difference with the female-identifying population using exclamation points more often.

In the age of the post-2016 election, a time when the news reported on Hillary Clinton’s lack of smile and President Donald Trump called Nancy Pelosi irrational, women are reminded to appear kind, gentle, happy. The exclamation point is affecting women disproportionately. We already established that exclamation points make the writing seem less serious and more childish, and we are seeing women using the exclamation point more often than men.

So, it’s women whose writings seem childish as they inundate their texts and writing with exclamation points to live up to the societal expectation of women seeming nice. Women use more marks to convey friendliness in a considerate attempt to manage the recipient’s feelings.

In her BBC article, “The Danger of Overusing Exclamation Marks,” Emily Torres blames her overuse of the exclamation mark on the pressure to consider another’s feelings as a woman in the workplace. In a time when women are paid less than men, promoted less than men and questioned more than men, the extra effort women assert trying to be employed, promoted and respected manifest in the exclamation point as women try to appear kind in the workplace.

The exclamation point feels like this: 13-year-old me watching the boys in my science class complete the lab while I just log the data. And 17-year-old me accepting my male friend’s ingrained sexism when he plays into double standards. And 21-year-old me repressing my feelings of discomfort when a man gets too close to me because I don’t want to seem rude. It’s a self-employed way to knock down my own sex, an acceptance of gender disparity and sexism.

Let’s get rid of the exclamation point, and if you really want to emphasize something, just italicize it.

Contact Lindsey Staub at [email protected].