10 facts about exclamation marks that we shouldn’t forget (in case the government manages to ban them)

There are a whole load of rules covering the use of the much maligned exclamation mark.

There are a whole load of rules covering the use of the much maligned exclamation mark. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The government's grammar police are keen to put an end to superfluous exclamation marks – one could say that they're trying to put a full stop to them. Are they mad?!

At a briefing run by the Standards Testing Agency, teachers and examination moderators were advised that the use of an 'exclamation sentence' must start with either a 'how' or a 'what' and must be a full sentence which includes a verb. 'What a massively over-simplified version of when an exclamation mark should and shouldn't be used!' is fine; but 'There are giant crumpets in the canteen today!' isn't. Although, clearly, news of giant crumpets in the canteen is a joyous exclamation that also deserves a host of smiley face emoticons and perhaps a Gif of an otter dancing.

*Watches as readers over the age of 35 leave the room*

I hate the over-use of exclamation marks as much as the next over-zealous, pedantic, precious writer who bangs on about their 'craft'. But I equally hate prescriptive rules about language, unless they are my prescriptive rules about language, in which case they are fine.

I once left my children, both under the age of 10, to watch a film on their own while I stood outside making a furious phone call to a Norwich Evening News sub-editor who had decided to add an exclamation mark to one of my columns to highlight a sentence I hoped people might realise was funny without a signpost.

'It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said 'an exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes',' I said, in a rant that would have required many exclamation marks had it been put into reported speech but as it was fell on deaf ears because the sub-editor in question was working nights and it was around 11am.

My children were still alive when I returned to them in the cinema, but that was hardly the point when I had been made to look as if I was laughing at my own jokes, even though I probably had been laughing at my own jokes which is always like the clanging chimes of doom ringing in a terrible truth: that what I've written isn't actually funny.

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I am slightly less het up about exclamation marks these days. As you get older you realise there are bigger battles to take on – or, more to the point, that cinema tickets cost far too much money for you to miss half a film arguing the toss about creativity and artistic freedom and a human's right to their own grammar.

So just in case the government manages to successfully ban exclamation marks, here are 10 facts about them that we shouldn't forget. Let's do this!

1) Before the 1970s, very few manual typewriters were equipped with exclamation mark keys – meaning that no one before 1971 was allowed to write anything amusing.

Apparently, what happened in the olden days was that you'd have to type a full stop, back space and then push the shift key and type an apostrophe – by the time you'd finished this rigmarole, the joy of your sentence would have drained away down the plughole of unbearable effort.

2) Women use more exclamation marks than men. I know! Unbelievable, right?! In a scientific paper with the bewitching title: Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communications it was revealed that women are the biggest offenders when it comes to punctuating their exclamation. The paper concluded that this was because women tend to be friendlier and more fun than men, which I think is a great conclusion to any research paper, regardless of subject matter.

3) We now expect exclamation marks to be used in personal emails and text messages so that we can be 100pc sure that our correspondent is being genuinely nice rather than attempting to summon up the chill of 100 winters with a cutting mail that says something heartless like 'I had a really nice time, thanks' instead of 'I had a really nice time!!! Thanks!!!' When facial expressions, tone of voice and body language are removed from the words someone says, it's virtually impossible to put what they are saying in context. Suddenly, even an innocent 'hello' becomes ominous without the x of a kiss or an exclamation mark. The lesson to be learned here is simple: use exclamation marks so that your nearest and dearest don't analyse every text you send for its hidden, evil meaning. Or just phone them up.

4) It is believed that the modern exclamation mark may have Latin roots: the Latin word for 'exclamation of joy' is io and written vertically, with the I above the O, it forms the exclamation mark we use today – no one is available from the olden days to verify why someone wrote the I above the O, just accept it as fact and it will become fact (this is also one of my parenting techniques).

5) There are only a certain number of exclamation marks left in the world – no one has an exact figure as to how many remain – so a campaign has been launched to encourage people to only use seven exclamation marks in their lifetime which must include all birth and marriage announcements and describing the joy of the second half of series six of The Walking Dead on Fox. I have two exclamation marks left, one of which is earmarked for my wedding day, the other for my inevitable damehood.

6) According to punctuation queen Lynne Truss, punctuation marks have also been called screamers, bangs, plings, smashes, soldiers, controls, gaspers, startlers, slammers, ball-bats, boings, dembangers, eurekas, screeches, shout poles, spark-spots and whams. But my favourite of all is 'shriekmark', which is exactly what an exclamation mark is – the punctuation equivalent of CAPPING UP EVERYTHING YOU WRITE AS IF YOU'RE SHOUTING.

7) There are towns whose names include an exclamation mark such as Westward Ho! in North Devon, St Louis du Ha! Ha! in Quebec and a town in Ohio called Hamilton! Under new government legislation for key stage 1 and 2 pupils, Sutton Hoo in Suffolk will soon qualify to be renamed either Sutton Hoo! or Sutton Hoo?

8) One of the most famous fans of exclamation marks was Hitler, who would add strident exclamation marks to the books he read if they particularly angered or amused him – an author who trawled through Adolf's personal library discovered many underlinings (and a moustache hair, revoltingly). Mark Twain, however, said that exclamation marks 'make one want to renounce joking and lead a better life'.

9) An upside-down exclamation mark is not a covert devil worshipping code*, it is a maths sign which means 'factorial', which in turn means 'multiply the number by all numbers within it down to 1'. In other words, a seven followed by an upside-down exclamation mark would mean 7x6x5x4x3x2x1 = 5040. Look, Mum, I done a maths!

*Unless you consider all maths to be covert devil worshipping, which I do.

10) The little-known exclamation comma, invented by Leonard Storch, Haagen Ernst Van and Sigmund Silber in 1992, was created to be a piece of punctuation which could be used within a sentence as a comma that packed a bit more of a punch. The trio also invented the exclamation comma's querulous sister, the question comma, which expressed a question within a sentence.

'During a long period writing a technical paper in the early 90s, I was startled in my sleep at 4am when an image of a question mark with a comma below it suddenly appeared in my mind's eye,' wrote Storch, 'I sprang up in bed yelling 'Eureka!' so loud that I scared my wife awake.' The patent expired on both new forms of punctuation in 1995.

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