CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

Exclamation marks

An exclamation mark (or exclamation point for our American friends) is a punctuation mark used to indicate an exclamation or emphatic phrase, mostly used in direct speech or animated prose. Some examples include:

‘I can’t believe you’d do something like that, you naughty boy!’

‘No, stop! Don’t get too close to the edge!’

‘Oh, dear,’ she said quickly. ‘I didn’t mean to step on your toe!’

As you can see, the exclamation marks in these examples serve to demonstrate a range of emotions—anger, fear and embarrassment. Also note that these sentences do not require full stops after the exclamation mark, as exclamation marks serve that purpose.

However, not all exclamation marks indicate the end of a sentence. For example:

‘No, no, no!’ the teacher shouted.

‘Stop where you are!’ the policeman cried, raising his taser.

‘Wait for me!’ his friend shouted.

Here, they take the place of a comma. Take note that the and his do not have a capital letter.

When using an exclamation mark directly after a name that must be italicised (such as mentioning a book, song or movie title), it would look like this:

‘John, put down that copy of Les Miserables! I’m warning you.’

However, if the exclamation mark belongs to the title in question, it should also be italicised. For example:

‘I went to see Oliver! on the weekend,’ I told all my friends proudly.

Exclamation marks can also be used mid-sentence to emphasise sounds, such as:

The cat went ‘meow!’ and scrambled over the fence.

In my writing, I have a lot of characters speaking in foreign languages and I have developed a personal writing style that dictates italics must be used when another language other than English is being spoken. Sometimes, it can be full sentences, other times, it is the occasional word mid-sentence. In instances when the last word of an otherwise roman (un-italicised) sentence is italicised, the exclamation mark should stick to that word. For example:

‘I can’t believe you would say such a thing, you… you vashte’sha!’ she exclaimed.

Or as our friend Tali Zorah vas Normandy would say:

‘Nice job, you genetically perfect Cerberus cheerleader bosh’tet!’

I also like to use exclamation marks coupled with ellipses to express a feeling of delayed disbelief in a speaker’s voice while also hinting at exasperation, fear or anger.

‘No…!’ she cried, falling to her knees beside her husband’s body.

However, it must be said that the overuse of exclamation marks is one of the greatest grammatical sins. Injecting an exclamation mark into a dull sentence will not magically give it life. While sentences of shouted dialogue can have exclamation marks, a reader will sometimes get tired of them sentence after sentence after sentence.

Also, it must be said that the use of multiple exclamation marks, in my view, is absolutely unnecessary. If a sentence needs three exclamation marks to convey its importance or emotional gravitas, then the words themselves, as I said above, are dull and need to be reworked.

However, multiple exclamation marks can be used well for comedic effect, often to display character. If a book was written from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old, for example, a section may look like this:

Dear diary, OMG!!! Jacob asked me out!!! I didn’t even know he liked me back!

But beyond exceptions like this, I prefer to use one exclamation mark and only when my sentences really need them. All in all, like commas, treat your exclamation marks with kindness and respect. Happy writing!

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