Text size

In 1862, after 25 years of literary labor, Victor Hugo published his magnum opus "Les Miserables" simultaneously in several languages on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As could be expected, the book was a great success in French. Hugo went on a well-earned vacation, but he was curious to know how it was selling in England. He sent a letter to his English publisher Hurst & Blackett, and wrote only: "?" The answer came back in the return post: "!"

Punctuation signs were posted on humanity's road between writing and reading. The first writing human being inscribed his words with hammer and chisel (following the thoughts that crossed his mind, which he thought were worth recording), but he did not need marks to punctuate the text. The first written messages did not even have spaces between individual words. But when others started to read the writer's texts, spaces and then graphic marks were inserted to signify inflection, emotion and other elements that were not self-evident within the clusters of letters.

The exclamation mark (or point) joined its older siblings - the full stop, the comma, the colon and the question mark - relatively late, at the end of the 14th century. Unlike them, fathered by necessity, the exclamation mark and its younger brother, the semicolon, can point to their fathers.

The semicolon was added to scripts by the Venetian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius to denote independent statements, sometime toward the end of the 15th century. About a century before that, circa 1380, Iacopo Apoleo da Urbisaglia wrote (in Latin): "Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausulae was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing to the end of such clausulae by means of clear punctus, and a comma placed to the side above that same punctus."

Soon enough the new mark, with the comma straightened and placed directly above the punctus (some claim it signifies the Latin word io, a kind of exclamation) became part of common usage in writing. Its original aim - to express admiration - receded (although it remains in the name of this graphic sign in Arabic), and it is used to instruct the reader to exclaim upon reading the word(s) that precede the sign. But how can one know what will follow the words until one gets there? The Spaniards addressed this problem: In their language, an upside-down exclamation mark (or upside-down question mark) is used at the beginning of an exclamatory (or interrogative) sentence.

There are no exclamation marks in the Hebrew Bible, nor in its Latin or Greek translations. But by the time King James's scholars convened to produce an authoritative English version, they used question marks freely, and exclamation marks, more sparingly.

In mathematics a number followed by "!" is a factoral (meaning all the following numbers preceding it, starting with 1, should be multiplied by each other). Thus, 6! is 1x2x3x4x5x6 = 720. The "!" just comes to show how big and strong a number might be when it accumulates the quantities that would result if all previous successive digits had combined their forces.

Like a punch

With the recent proliferation of e-mail as the means of immediate written communication between two individuals, which simulates interpersonal verbal contact, the level of spelling has plummeted alarmingly (I myself am using shortcuts to spare time, and I also omit letters - r u 2?), and exclamation marks have started to multiply faster than rabbits. Like someone who uses his hands to explain his words better, we throw exclamation marks onto the screen by the dozens.

Nowadays, Victor Hugo would have e-mailed his publisher "?????????" and the latter would likely have answered "!!!!!!!!!!"

The computer keyboard enhances the usage of the exclamation mark in pinpointing a poignant point in a heated exchange, like a punch in the nose of the recipient. It is like a left hook, delivered by pressing the "shift" key with a finger on your right hand and punching a mighty blow on the "1" key with a finger on your left hand. If that does not clinch things, you can add a question mark by pressing "shift" on the left, followed by a sweeping movement of the right hand and a blow to the key next to the right "shift" key. You can do it in reverse, and your opponent will usually go down for a count of at least seven. Interestingly enough, this does not work in SMS communication, mainly due to the difficulty of finding the exclamation mark on the little keyboard (on my mobile phone to get one "!" I have to punch "0" four times).

The proper etiquette in writing is not to overdo it with the "!". Some couple their "?"s with "!"s, to signify astonishment. There was even an effort to combine both into one typographic sign, called an interrobang. Some writers put their exclamation marks in parentheses, as if saying, "if you did not get the idea yourself, here is my way of exclaiming (!) that you must mark (!) it."

In America, the world of business has woken up to the overuse of "!" in its correspondence. Executives used to conversing by e-mail tend to pour exclamation marks into contracts, the result being unintended insults when they are printed on paper, although the sentences had looked like a good or even witty idea on the screen!!!!!! A teacher of business writing for executives at an Illinois university tells her students that they are permitted to use two exclamation marks during their entire lives. I think she overindulges them. One should be more than enough.

In typo-speak the exclamation mark is sometimes called a "screamer" or a "bang." And so I e-mailed someone that the world will end with a whimper, not with a "!"