Sometime 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.
Similarly, 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.
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!
To 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.