A Word, Please: If you choose to exclaim, follow the rules

Recently I dusted off an old paperback copy of "Oliver Twist." Flipping through, I landed on page 121, where I read the following passage.

"Hold your tongue, sir!" said Mr. Fang, peremptorily.

"I will not, sir!" replied the old gentleman.

"Hold your tongue this instant, or I'll have you turned out of the office!" said Mr. Fang. "You're an insolent, impertinent fellow. How dare you bully a magistrate!"

"What!" exclaimed the old gentleman, reddening.

"Swear this person!" said Fang to the clerk.

I don't know if it's because I'm a copy editor, but all I could see was this: Out of seven sentences, six contained exclamation points. Six.

Good luck finding that level of emotion in print today. I'm betting that not even "Fifty Shades of Grey" goes to such lengths to convey intensity. (That's just a guess. To know for sure, I'd have to actually open the book, which just isn't going to happen.)

People today just don't use many exclamation points. We're too cool for that. Too blasé. Emotion in general and high-spirited enthusiasm in particular just seem too undignified — too "Leave It to Beaver" — for our post-Kurt Cobain world.

True, that's coming from a Gen Xer. But I don't think it's just my demographic. In professional publishing, exclamation points are clearly out.

The writing aesthetic that reigns today is based more on the idea that the substance of the words should carry their own impact. Note the stripped-down simplicity of this famous line of dialogue: "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." Is it any wonder Thomas Harris didn't have Hannibal Lecter say instead: "I ate his liver!!!! Fava beans on the side!!!! The wine pairing?!?! A nice Chianti!!!"

Call it substance over shrieking.

This stripped-down writing aesthetic doesn't end with the ever-fading exclamation point. It's why adjectives and adverbs are also used sparingly these days. Notice how those modifiers actually weaken the message: "I viciously ate his delicious liver with some tasty fava beans and an extremely nice Chianti."

Like adjectives and adverbs, though, exclamation points aren't dead yet. And it looks like they'll be around for a long time, albeit in a downsized position. So the rules for using them are still worth knowing. Luckily, there aren't many. And the first should already be clear: Use them sparingly.

When you do, note that an exclamation point usually precludes a comma or period that would otherwise appear in its position. In "'Listen to me!' Bill said," a comma would normally come after "me."

But the exclamation point precludes it.

Most people get that right. But many struggle with the question of where to put an exclamation point relative to a closing quotation mark. Exclamation points and question marks have a different set of rules than the ones that govern periods and commas.

In American English, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark. An exclamation point or question mark can come before or after the closing quote mark, depending on whether it applies to the whole sentence or the quoted portion only.

I hate it when people use the word "synergize"! I don't mind when people yell "stop!"

Both those sentences are correct. In the first, the whole sentence is an exclamation. In the second, only the quoted portion is being exclaimed.

And what if both the quoted portion and the whole sentence are exclamations? Style guides recommend you keep just one exclamation point — the one inside the quotation marks.

I hate it when people yell "stop!"

As for pairing up exclamation points with question marks: I don't recommend it. That's the kind of thing you see in emails and tweets but only rarely in professional writing.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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