Thinking about the advances in comprehension made possible by punctuation, I wondered about the exclamation point. When was it invented? Looking for help on the history of punctuation, we can turn to Keith Houston. Houston wrote the 2014 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Houston has a good summary here. Ashley Timms also has a good summary here. According to Houston, the exclamation point was a late arrival, entering the scene some time in the 15th century.
It arrived in time for Shakespeare to use it, and he may have, but we can’t be entirely sure. We have no manuscript in his own hand. Rather, we have the plays as originally published in the quarto format or in the First Folio. Exclamation points appear, but they may have added by the printer (“compositor”) rather than put there by Shakespeare. Exclamation points rarely appeared in sixteenth-century texts. Most punctuation that we see in modern texts of Shakespeare is inserted by editors, not by Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare got along without the exclamation point — either mostly or entirely — how about us? We live in the age of overstatement, of exaggeration, of hyperbole (see what I mean?). We cannot get along without the exclamation point. Indeed, we can’t get along without multiple exclamation points (!!!). Overstatement gives rise to overuse.
The exclamation point is certainly a useful device. It gives voice to the written word. It adds emphasis. It tells the reader that this is the point!
Geoff Nunberg has some food for thought in the NPR segment “After Years Of Restraint, A Linguist Says ‘Yes!’ To The Exclamation Point.” From Nunberg I learned that “Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne used the [exclamation point] freely. But by the late 19th century, it had become the staple of lurid novels and the sensational yellow press, whose printers called it a screamer, a shriek or a bang.”
We probably overuse exclamation points in informal communication such as email more than we do in formal writing. In personal communication, we may strive to replicate our spoken voice.
We should always seek to make our meaning clear. Before resorting to the exclamation point in formal writing we should supplied emphasis where it belongs by use of words themselves. The exclamation point should be used sparingly, perhaps as a last resort, or to add spice — irony or humor — where it might not otherwise appear.
There is of course a political angle to the use of the exclamation point. Presidential candidates have occasionally put it to work in something like vocative form. I recall Rocky!, Lamar!, and — who can forget? — Jeb! There is a pattern here. Whatever success these men otherwise achieved in their endeavors — they were all good governors! — their presidential campaigns were losers.