Wed
Mar 16 2011 6:04pm

Bang! How the Exclamation Mark Makes Us Into Comic Book Characters

Transformers comicSometime in 1986 or 87, I read a Transformers comic book while suffering from an extremely high fever. It was one of the Spider-Man crossovers and “Spike” was still known as “Buster.” I loved it, but everything felt like it was happening too fast and I was worried the excitable robots were making my fever even worse. In this deranged state, I started noticing an abundance of exclamation marks and for some reason decided to count ALL of them. And though I can’t be 100% sure of this today (I had a fever and I was a six year old) I concluded that every single line of dialogue ended with an exclamation mark!

In 2011, the usage of the exclamation mark appears to have increased in frequency! But are we punctuating differently than just 20 or 30 years ago? Has the rise of the exclamation mark made us all into comic book characters? Or is there a new connotation and meta-meaning to this exciting symbol?

Whether or not every single Transformer really spoke that excitedly may never be determined, but what is likely is the influence that comic books might have on internet communication, specifically the exclamation mark. It’s not so crazy if you think about it. Take words written in ALL CAPS! Of course signage and newspaper headlines have been employing phrases and words in all capital letters for quite some time.

It’s Clobberin’ TimeSimilarly, many TV, movie, or stage scripts will indicate that a character is yelling by putting their dialogue in all capitals. But the audience never sees those capital letters. In terms of reading: a comic book synthesizes the moment a character is yelling by creating a typographical representation of the yell. With comic book dialogue, all caps with an exclamation point causes the reader to “see” the yell. Later, in early chat room culture, we all knew how to spot shouting by seeing all the capital letters. And I think comic books may have had something to do with that.

Don’t think exclamation marks are on the rise? Well, according reports from Search Engine Roundtable, Google recently began allowing promoted ads to feature exclamation marks! This apparently is a change from Google’s basic rules regarding its promoted ads. Similarly, a cursory evaluation of numerous celebrity tweets indicates a bevy of excited bangs, sometimes more than one! Any among us who use Facebook know the best way to indicate you REALLY like one of your friend’s posts is not only to give it a thumbs up, but also write a comment like some of the ones I occasionally receive. (“Good article, Ryan!!”)

Marshall McLuhan famously argued that the media through which we receive a message alters the way we think about and see the message. Two forms that definitely mix text with images are comic books and contemporary internet communication. Even having a Twitter update or a Facebook status is a bit like announcing a super-hero catch phrase.

Daredevil can’t wait for his date tonight

Maybe this is why we punctuate so many of these with exclamation marks. Status updates like “I am going to the store to buy pasta!” OR “I just saw a cute dog in the park walking like a crab!” are now the everyday analogs of “Here I am to save the day!” Frequently we couple these battle cries with image, thus the status update with the picture becomes like a frame in a comic book. It’s no surprise that many fictional Facebook profiles have been created for super heroes or super hero-like characters. (Mark Millar’s character Kick-Ass famously had a MySpace account.)

Also, unsurpsingly a new book about Marshall McLuhan (by Douglas Coupland) ends in a bang. Referencing McLuhan’s appearance in the film Annie Hall, the book is called You Know Nothing of My Work!

You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas CouplandTo be sure, contemporary connotation of various punctuation marks seems focused on tone. Indeed, according to an article on snarkmarket.com from 2009, the apostrophe and the comma are less common that the exclamation mark and the various forms punctuation that make up emoticons. And in my opinion, this trend indicates another meta-use of the exclamation mark in the past decade or so. When we use an exclamation mark in e-mail or a message to someone on another digital platform, more often than not, what we are actually saying is “I like you. I really do like you.”

What’s great about this is that it’s a callback to the roots of the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark comes from the term “note of admiration” which is a derivation from Latin. The theory goes like this: the basic origin of exclamation mark started with the actual Latin word for joy which is “lo” and that occasionally the “l” was written above the “o.” Sounds like the original emoticon, right?

Now, all we need is a web comic which depicts Latin-speaking people who write very sweet e-mails to each other. In space. In any case, the next time someone accuses you of overusing an exclamation point, you might want to consider if they are aware of your secret identity.


Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared with Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The New Inquiry and elsewhere. He is a regular blogger for Tor.com. The two most recent books Ryan read had exclamation marks in the titles.

17 comments
Mouldy Squid
1. Mouldy_Squid
Overuse of the exclamation point makes me angry. Not everything is important enough to warrant an exclamation point, let alone more than one of them. I have a co-worker that uses them for every single sentence in every single e-mail she sends. It makes me want to punch her. Explanations of style and proper use of punctuation are ignored. If you want to tell your friends "I am having lunch!!!" fine, but there is absolutely no reason for such typographic abuse in professional settings.

Personally, I believe that this is another symptom of the disease of illiteracy that plagues our modern age. People are unable to communicate well and have such limited vocabularies that the only method they have of expressing importance is the exclamation mark. They also have never learned why or when it should be used correctly, or if they were taught about it, it was dismissed as "stupid grammar rules".

They should be used sparingly, if they are to be used at all.
Neon Sequitur
2. Neon Sequitur
I hate exclamation marks!!!
Neon Sequitur
4. Angiportus
I thought "Lo" meant something like "Oh, look..." But I'm not sure. I recall that the original Conan comic, starting in 1970, was notable for using fewer exclamation points than was the norm then.
Teresa Jusino
5. TeresaJusino
I'm definitely on the "tone" train. I tend to use exclamation points a lot, particularly in emails/messages to other people, precisely because if you don't, anything you write has a tendency to come off harsh/snooty/holier-than-thou/unfeeling/etc. I use exclamation points to sound more like me when I speak. I don't use them for something like "I'm going to lunch!" Unless, of course, I'm really excited about that lunch. But a lot of the time, if I want to reflect the casual, upbeat way I speak, I'll throw in an exclamation point! Or two! ;)
Neon Sequitur
6. steve boyett
An exclamation point is a crutch upon which a lame writer leans a sentence.
Neon Sequitur
7. madscientistnz
I'm with TeresaJusino on the "tone" train, adding far too many exclamation marks in my emails, in an effort to moderate how my words sound and make sure people know the funny/sarcastic comments aren't to be taken seriously. (I also abuse brackets.)

I do try to remove the excess exclamation marks and brackets with proof-reading, but sometimes that just takes too long and people get the rambling super-excited! version of my life!
Ryan Britt
8. ryancbritt
Angi- That's cool about the Conan comic. You'd think it would have a lot. Interesting Conan was so chilled out.
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
Mouldy Squid and Steve Boyett- while I have found myself agreeing with both of you on more than one occasion, I hardly think of writers who use exclamation marks as lazy or illiterate.

That being said, sometimes one can go too far!
Chris Hawks
13. SaltManZ
The Transformers cover pictured is issue #7 (the Spider-Man crossover being #3) and was my first TF comic, and probably still my favorite.
Neon Sequitur
14. trollin'
Gavin Mcinnes invented single words in caps back in Vicemag.

and that's something EVERYONE!!!... should know
Neon Sequitur
15. Innbranna
Also on the "tone" train. I have a natural aversion to using exlamation marks (back when I was editing articles for my university paper, I tried to establish a regime where each journalist was given a quota of 3 exclamation marks per semester - sadly, noone agreed). Now I find myself deliberately inserting them in my sms-es and Facebook comments, so as not to come off as solemn and having no sense of humour.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
Trollin' @14: Not hardly. It goes back a lot farther than that.

TeresaJusino @5: By your lights, every email I've ever written has sounded "harsh/snooty/holier-than-thou/unfeeling/etc." Naturally, that's not how it reads to me. By the same token, ending every sentence with an exclamation point doesn't say to me "this is my authentic voice"; instead, it comes across as the typographical equivalent of dotting one's i's with tiny hearts.

I once ... interacted ... with someone ... who almost exclusively used the ellipsis ... which meant that only the capital letters ... marked where sentences began ... and ended ... aaaarghbiteme. It was her version of sounding heartfelt and authentic, as opposed to the rigid, authoritarian, and doctrinaire practice of using commas and periods. Reading it made me feel like I was sinking in quicksand.

What's funny about all this is that the whole point of differentiated punctuation is to convey voice. It was invented to facilitate reading aloud: pause here, stop here, this is an exclamation, read this as a question. Using the same piece of punctuation on every sentence actually flattens voice, so that it can only be read correctly by someone who already knows what the writer sounds like.
JP Ikäheimonen
17. Oldtribe
In the old EC comics every sentence ends either in ellipsis or an exclamation point.
Adam Whitehead
18. Werthead
Would it be unacceptably nerdy to point out that, in the comic at least, Spike and Buster are separate characters (brothers, Spike is away at university for the first half of the comic's lifespan or so)?

Thought so.

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