Rationing Your Exclamation Points

In episode 68 of the comedy series "Seinfeld," there is a debate between Elaine and her new boyfriend, Jack. He wrote her a note saying that "Myra had a baby," but didn't add an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. Elaine is ready to explode. "Don't you think that the fact that someone had a baby justifies an exclamation point?" she scolds him. "All I did was write a message," he replies. "I didn't know that I had to capture the mood of everyone who calls." At the end of the incident, the two separate shouting, as they sign exclamation points in the air.

This amusing incident may represent a broader phenomenon. An recent article in The New York Times dealt with courses and workshops for employees in American corporations, to teach them how to write properly - and if possible, without exclamation points. A survey recently conducted by the National Commission on Writing in the United States found that various economic bodies invest $3 million annually in courses of this type. This is due to the fact that the writing of e-mails, which is the most prevalent form of communication today, is so sloppy that often it is impossible to understand what the writers want.

One reason for the sorry state of e-mails is that most of the writers don't consider them a formal means of communication, so they permit themselves to express themselves freely. Therefore, expressions are leaking into e-mail that are borrowed from the SMS world of abbreviations, in which U replaces "you," and the numeral 2 replaces the word "to." The result is likely to be very embarrassing when the writer of the message is a mid-level executive in a bank who is corresponding with a supplier or a client.

In addition, just because e-mail is an informal means of communication, the writers try to transmit their mood, so that the side receiving the message will know how to read it in the proper context.

As a result, even business e-mails often include a "smiley," which hints to the reader that the writer is smiling as he writes the sentence. Another way of transmitting the tone of voice is to write in capital letters, and of course to add exclamation points at the end of the sentence. "People think that the message they are writing will come across more strongly if they throw a few exclamation points into a business e-mail," says Linda Landis Andrews, who teaches at the University of Illinois and offers writing courses for executives. "I tell them [my students] that they are allowed two exclamation points in their whole life."

Another issue stems from the transition from the world of speech to the world of writing. In the beginning, people met face to face to do business. Later, they wrote letters to one another, and waited for months until a reply arrived. In the early 20th century, the telephone became the most popular means of communication in the world. In a country like the United States, because of the huge distances, the way in which you speak on the phone is very important: your tone of voice, the way in which you choose to react to the complaints of your interlocutor, and so on.

E-mail has fundamentally changed this situation. But writing abilities differ from speaking abilities, and sometimes a person finds himself confused when confronting an unclear e-mail message, even if it was sent by a senior executive in the organization.

What do you do? You learn how to write. But that's not the end of the story, either. After they have honed their writing skills, businessmen will once again have to get used to a new technological situation. Although videoconferencing is very familiar in the corporate world as a means of staying in contact within the organization, it won't take long until these conferences establish themselves as a primary means of communication. And what will they do then with their lost writing skills? Maybe we'll gain a few whodunits.