Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Exclamations!


Welcome to guest-blogger Tim Gorichanaz, whose ScratchTap blog explores aspects of written language. Thanks, Tim, for sharing some reflections on the BrE/AmE aspect!



When we consider the graphemicthat is, visualdifferences between BrE and AmE, we likely first think of the numerous spelling differences. Next, perhaps, the differences in punctuating quotations (single versus double [AmE] quotation marks / [BrE] inverted commas) may occur to us, and maybe we even notice that BrE doesnt put full stops after contractions such as Mr and Mrs (which, in AmE, are considered abbreviations and are treated with a following period). It seems that all these differences are the fruit of concerted reform efforts: In the United States Noah Webster shook up the world of spelling, and we have Henry Watson Fowler to thank for a more logical punctuation scheme in BrE.

Of course, such efforts account for a petty minority of the differences between BrE and AmE; this blog has chronicled countless differences that sprang up of their own accord, due only to the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean. Today Id like to point out another one of these: the exclamation (AmE) point / (BrE) mark. We may be past the ca. 2007 exclamation craze, but even in 2012 they were evidently still sufficiently heavily (over)used to merit an article in The Wire, and theres no indication that Americans love for exclamations has at all receded.

Anecdotally speaking, exclamation points/marks seem to be much more eagerly employed in American than in Britain. More than one ESL student has told me that their BrE teachers had remarked that Americans use exclamations far more than Brits.

To test this a bit more rigorously, I compared customer reviews for the 2013 book The Orphan Masters Son on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. In the first three pages of reviews, the Americans used 13 exclamation points, while the Brits used only 2 exclamation marks. A search on the Google Books likewise suggests a remarkable effect: A search for ! in the AmE corpus reports a density of 0.050% in the year 2000, while the BrE corpus returns 0.040% (though we can note a general decline in both dialects since the 1800s).

Of course, this brief investigation doesnt consider texts, emails and other types of written communication, so Ill defer to you, readers: Who do you think uses more exclamations?

Somehow I managed to make it through this entire post without a single gratuitous exclamatory, but thats about to change!

37 comments:

Nick said...

I had always just assumed that it was idiosyncratic. Especially after that episode of Seinfeld when Elaine thinks her boyfriend is unenthusiastic for not using an exclamation "point", while he thinks she is a bit too free and easy with hers!

David Crosbie said...

There are only a few cases where the exclamation mark (I'm British) is a visual feature of the text:
What a pity!
Oh, no!
Congratulations!

Most of the time it's the other way round; the writer starts with a shouty sentence in his/her head and expresses it on paper (or onscreen) as a sentence ending in an exclamation mark. In effect, the punctuation mark is chosen before the wording.

So, if you find more exclamation-marked sentences in particular body of writers, it's largely because they choose to make more shouty statements.

It's my impression — not necessarily an accurate one — that Americans more often write shouty sentences, in much the same way that Americans more often whoop with delight in concerts.

I suppose the only way to compare British writers and American writers would be to pay various experimental subjects to write prose transcriptions of the same passages of dialogue, journalism, fiction, correspondence or whatever.

Even then there's potential difficulty. If you don't ask them to pay attention to punctuation, then many will not bother with it. But if you do direct their attention, they may produce more exclamation marks than they normally would.

How about a study of British-produced and American produced subtitles?
... Having said that, I immediately remember that Americans are reported to dislike subtitles. And the absence of a mark may simply result from lack of space — subtitles are composed with a strict cap on the number of characters.

John Cowan said...

I'm an American who has said exclamation mark all my life, just like question mark. Okay, so Google Ngrams says point outnumbers mark 3:1 in AmE at present, but that seems to be a post-1980 development: before that, it was only about 2:1.

Anonymous said...

I'm a New Yorker and also can never remember if its a point or a mark. I just copy my proofreader of a mother and call it an exclam or bang.

Zhoen said...

My experience is that a lot of Am/E writers of memos and emails and blogs, are grossly addicted to the exclamation point, to a highly unprofessional and disturbing degree. When replying to them, I refuse to use any, ever. Not without sarcasm, at least.

I have not noticed this among the Br/E bloggers I read, who visit my little site. There may be a positive reward response involved.

Allison said...

As an American, I definitely agree that we do have a tendency to over-use exclamation points.

I would attribute it the fact that we are just generally more enthusiastic than our British counterparts.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Canadian who has lived in both the USA and UK. My experience (completely unscientific) is that Americans are much more textually excitable than Brits. (Canadians are somewhere in between, as usual.)

By the way, hope it's OK if I include a shout-out to the wonderful blog Excessive Exclamation!! A real treat for the connoisseur of emphatic punctuation.

Picky said...

My guess is that in BrE an exclamation mark is used in informal writing, and rarely in formal writing except as a deliberate informality or an error in tone. I would not expect it to be frequent in book reviews. Is it seen as informal in AmE? Could the difference in frequency mirror a different tendency to formality rather than a difference in shoutiness?

Mark said...

A variant that I sometimes use (BrE) is the exclamation mark within brackets (!). Not sure I could define its meaning but it's more of an expression of surprise or humour, and has probably been superseded in recent years by emoticons.

David Crosbie said...

Mark

I take (!) to be an aside, a parenthesis in parentheses
(cf parentheses and brackets),
pointing up the importance or surprising nature of what has just been written — along the lines of spoken

Now ↘THERE'S a funny thing!
or
Yes, I ↘DO mean that

Graham said...

Is the main difference actually to do with the cultural difference in tone of BrE vs. AmE? I find BrE emails (particularly business emails) tend to be more factual, objective, passive (sometimes even third person); AmE tend to be more personal, subjective, active. This is, of course, also a very visible difference in other business contexts (such as face-to-face meetings) -- so much so that it is always included in cross-cultural business training (like the cultural difference in some communities to never say "no" in a business discussion).

n0aaa said...

My wife uses a lot more exclamation marks than I do. Always has. Gender thing?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I (BrE) try not to use them, with singular lack of success. They are alleged to be a sign of poor writing, according to a former boss of mine. But he, admittedly, belonged to the "former generation" and his shibboleths may be obsolete.

And having said that, let us not forget the town in the West Country that incorporates an exclamation mark as part of its name - Westward Ho!

SuccubaSuprema said...

From my own observations, I would say that we females tend to use exclamation marks more often than males. There are of course exceptions to this, which I have tentatively attributed to age (although the popularity of anime among younger Americans may also have something to do with it, because those younger males whom I've noticed using many exclamation marks were also rather fond of anime, but this could be coincidental and not causal).

As for the question of "exclamation mark" or "exclamation point," I'm familiar with both, but I seldom hear or see the latter much anymore, and I believe I've been using "exclamation mark" for some time without having noticed that I stopped using "exclamation point" as frequently as I'm sure I did in my childhood. While I am from the USA and live in the States now, a lot of my perspectives on the English language derive from my fondness for British lit (which fondness dates back to my primary school days), I've traveled considerably (both within the US and "outwith" the same), and have many friends from and/or in other countries (with whom I also correspond over the net, so I see their spellings, punctuation habits, etc).

vp said...

And having said that, let us not forget the town in the West Country that incorporates an exclamation mark as part of its name - Westward Ho!

Or well-known American internet company that has an exclamation mark as part of its official name. (Interesting aside: the exclamation mark in Yahoo!'s name was apparently inserted inorder to qualify for trademark protection.

Anonymous said...

AmE, female, under60 here --
I hardly ever used them in writing letters (yes, some of us wrote letters and even typed them on paper!), but now I use them a lot in emails.
I think my main motive in using them is to promote a sense of good cheer in communication with strangers who have purchased my goods or have asked questions about my goods. I somehow sense that otherwise my words might seem po-faced, or be taken the wrong way.

Zhoen said...

And from Terry Pratchett,
“Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.”

I'd like to blame all this excitement and hyperbole on our advertising industry. May I?

Matthew Pierce said...

I'm from America and I must admit to using exclamation points a lot! See, I did it just then. What bothers me though, is when people use excessive exclamation points. Is there really ever a need to put three, four, or even five exclamations after ANY statement?

Anonymous said...

Exclamation points/marks in names can be confusing . I had been using the free anti-virus program 'Avast!' for many months before I realised that that was its name. I had thought it was called 'Avasti' and that the designers of the logo had ebulliently if whimsically inverted the 'i'.

markonsea said...

Well, if you use an exclamation mark at the end of what is not an exclamation, you're going to need to double (or treble) up to indicate where you actually are exclamating, aren't you?

There's going to be a continuous inflationary effect, I suspect.

Kate Bunting said...

Sorry, David Crosbie, but I don't use exclamation marks to indicate a 'shouty sentence', but to suggest that what I've just said (in an informal communication) is surprising or strange. I do sometimes catch myself over-using them.
I believe the musical Oklahoma! also officially has an exclamation mark as part of its name, though it's often omitted.

David Crosbie said...

Kate Bunting

Sorry, David Crosbie, but I don't use exclamation marks to indicate a 'shouty sentence' but to suggest that what I've just said (in an informal communication) is surprising or strange.

It's not really a disagreement, Kate. I only suggested that most of the time people started with shouty sentences in their heads.

A more interesting question is this:

Do you you start with a surprising or strange idea in your head? Or do you decide after you've written a sentence that it merits that extra signal?

Oh, and another question:

Do you use these surprising or strange signals for a readership of people who don't know you? Or do you share my fear that the sentence might be misread as shouty?

David Crosbie said...

Kate

I heard a story once — quite possibly untrue — that the exclamation mark was added to Oklahoma! during its pre-Broadway run. Allegedly, the potential audience knew that it was set in 1906, and some took the un-punctuated title to suggest a serious historical treatment.

The same trick was tried for two Lionel Bart musicals, with mixed results. Oliver! was a huge hit, but Twang!! was a disaster.

a different Graham said...

Exclamation points/marks in names can be confusing.
I had been using the anti-virus program 'Avast!' for many months before I realised that that was its name.
I had thought it was called 'Avasti' and that the designers of the logo had whimsically inverted the 'i'.

Kate Bunting said...

David, I'm not sure we both mean the same thing by a 'shouty sentence'. To me it suggests an irate demand like "Please do NOT do that again!"
I think if I was reporting a coincidence or commenting on something unusual, whoever the audience, I would instinctively add an exclamation mark (though I might go back and remove it if I caught myself using too many!).
Re. subtitles - I've noticed that an exclamation mark in brackets is sometimes used to indicate an ironic tone to the words used, as in "That's great (!)"

Kate Bunting said...

I read about the Oklahoma! thing in the memoirs of Helene Hanff of 84 Charing Cross Road fame, but I can no longer remember the reason she gave for the exclamation mark being added.

Drew said...

I (AmE) don't use them at all in formal business writing. But in my experience, in email and texts, they've become almost a "sincerity point". An email reading "Thanks." could be taken as sarcastic. "Thanks!" is sincere.

David Crosbie said...

Kate

I'm pleasantly surprised to hear that ther are sub-titlers who are so skilled that they can spare a three-chracter space to express such a subtlety.

When I wrote of 'a shouty sentence' I wasn't really thinking of any particular emotion. I meant the expression — inward and silent — in the form of a grammatical sentence, and with a — virtual —raised voice, heard only by the mien's ear. My suggestion was that we compose such sentences, raised voice and all, before we write them down. It didn't occur to me that shout implied more than 'in a raised voice'.

I may be unusual, but I don't find it natural to write a sentence first and then decide whether or not to add an exclamation mark.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect that you add something like a wide range of intonation silently in your head — before writing it down as an exclamation of surprise.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SuccubaSuprema said...

When I use a parenthetical exclamation mark, it is usually (always?) to call attention to a clause without exclaiming the entire sentence, in a way for which italics, boldface, or underlining will not suffice.

starwefter said...

I think the formality of the writing really does come into it far more than the nationality. I don't recall ever seeing much in the way of exclamation points (marks) in American news reports and I never saw them used in academic writing (text books, etc.) or used them in term papers, but I have been known to litter them liberally in my comments on blogs, Twitter, and especially on Facebook (along the lines of: "OMG! *blinks* Really? Are you sure?? That's totally amazing!!! *melts into a puddle of happy goo!*") to the extent that I have occasionally written an addendum stating "and now I've used up my quota of exclamation points for the month." It really is a way to be "shouty" -- to convey emotion with an otherwise emotionless set of black marks on a white page.

I did that here recently in my comment about "shone" in the recent blog post, because I was so excited I wanted to bounce up and down in my chair, and I think I did a half hour rant to my best friend and another fifteen minute one to my son about feeling justified in having said shone all these years. If that isn't worth a few extra exclamation points, I'm not sure what is.....

I've been sitting here wondering for days now why we call it an exclamation point, but a question mark, in America. For that matter, why do the French use << >> instead of " " around around their quotes? Is that one of those odd pieces involved in the history of printing and typography? Or something else entirely?

David Crosbie said...

I see the link I posted to Helene Hanff on Oklahoma! doesn't work. At least it isn't working on my browser. Let's try again:

Underfoot in Show Business

This confirms the fact of the change, but doesn't really explain who made the decision, or what they said was the reason.

OzGuy said...

Australian here, so viewpoint will be closer to BrE in most cases. It is entirely my own viewpoint and I encourage others to disagree.

-------

A variant that I sometimes use (BrE) is the exclamation mark within brackets (!). Not sure I could define its meaning but it's more of an expression of surprise or humour, and has probably been superseded in recent years by emoticons.
"(!)" is usually used to refer to surprise/bewilderment on behalf of the writer, usually in relation to something someone has said.

-------

It is rarely used to denote a "shouty sentence" here. ALLCAPS would often be a better choice. If an exclamation is used it might be in addition to all caps. So in order of severity:
*Please stop.
*PLEASE STOP.
*PLEASE STOP!

This probably come from that also being near universal in Online English.

I also prefer this as its easier to place stress in a sentence (ie. you can allcaps only part of a sentence if desired).

-------

I agree with David that only a few sentences are normally used with exclamation marks.

I'd also add:
*Oi!
*Most warning words/sentence fragments, when used alone. (Watch Out!)
*Most swear words/sentence fragments, when used alone.

-------

I too have noticed Americans use ! more than other varieties. I would put this down to culutural differences. Americans are in general more "excitable" than other English-speaking cultures.

For example - Those corporate events where a speaker fires up the crowd of employees to raise morale and corporate pride are largely an American phenomenon.

I'd be more inclined to laugh and/or think the speaker/company was a bit full of himself/itself.

I believe that kind of egalitarian ethos is present in the UK. Though Australia is usually considered a more extreme example of hyper-egalitarianism.
(though a British response would likely be similar in the particular example I have given above)

I can expand on that if anyone wishes, rather than go on a tangent from this point.

Anonymous said...

In the last sentence of this interesting post, Tim uses the word 'exclamatory' as a noun. That comes accross to my British ears as rather odd and ungainly affectation. (What's wrong with the word 'exclamation'?)
How does it sound to American, Australian or Canadian ears?

starwefter said...

Since reading this I've been watching comments on Facebook, and I've gotten to wondering how much of this has to do with the age of the writer as well, because I talk to someone in her early twenties who lives in Cornwall, and she's just as liberal with exclamation points/marks as I am.

Out of nowhere I found this, about question marks: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/04/02/punctuation_internet_and_twitter_users_sometimes_replace_the_question_mark.html

Albert Welch said...

Masssachusetts Age 25-

I wonder if there's a third factor besides age or location that has bearing on the use of punctuation.

I posit that the extent of one's use of the exclamation point,(I have used and will continue to use point, despite feeling that mark is a more accurate term) is inversely proportional to the size expressiveness and level of nuance in a person's vocabulary. I would further extend this hypothesis to include the use of emoticons.

I too found Tim's use exclamatory odd but I suppose he wished to distinguish the mark from the phrase, without calling it a mark or a point.

Grhm said...

Good point about emoticons.

In the days before computers, when most typography was done by hand and people were free from the tyranny of keyboards and fonts, it would have been much easier to append cartoon faces to writing than it is today. But people didn't. Our forebears wrote to one another all the time in a perfectly congenial manner without resorting to such contrivances. Instead, they used those supremely expressive things called 'words'.

But words seem to be going out of fashion. The English language may well be the most subtle and powerful system for transferring ideas that has ever existed in the entire history of the Universe. But people are afraid to use it. In the modern world, to strive for clarity by deploying the full range of one's vocabulary is thought pompous; and rather than risk being mistaken for Colonel Blimp, most educated people prefer to communicate imperfectly. It's a terrible waste.