Exclamation marks and hot peppers

Why are exclamation marks like hot peppers? Use both sparingly.

Tomorrow, we in the U.S. wrap up a presidential campaign that’s seemed at times like a bowlful of hot peppers served up as an entrée. And when I say “wrap up,” I really want that to mean “finish.” But will it just be the start of something even nastier? Whichever way the vote goes, I don’t have much hope of Civility returning to our political discourse anytime soon. I think she’s run away to Canada, with their hunky prime minister and universal healthcare.

But back to writing.

Discussions have gotten heated during this election season. Exclamation marks have emerged—and not just for the Cubs’ victory, which really deserves them.

Seriously, if your team wins the World Series after more than a century of disappointment, you have my full and complete permission to !!!!! until your finger gets tired. Then rest and !!!!! some more. But that exception is unlikely to apply to anyone else in the foreseeable future, so we’d better learn the proper way to use exclamation marks.

And so I give you a handy flowchart Beth Dunn put together over at Hubspot. Read it, commit it to memory—and then please, for your readers’ sake, heed its advice.

Beth Dunn's flowchart helps you decide when to use exclamation marks
Handy flowchart written by Beth Dunn & designed by Tyler Littwin

You may feel excited after the election results come in. That’s perfectly okay. But don’t look just at the upper left quadrant of your keyboard to express that emotion. Exclamation marks don’t say “I’m excited!” as much as they say, “I’m a lazy writer.”

Exclamation marks or words?

So how do you express excitement? As your mother may have said: “Use your words.”

That’s what Beth Dunn says too. More than once. Here, look at the subliminal message in her post subtly titled “Lay Off the Exclamation Marks, Buddy.”

“Exclamation marks are singularly unsuited to the task of getting your users excited about using your product. And yet they seem to be the tool that everyone reaches for first when excitement is what they want to create.”

She’s writing about marketing communications—her area of expertise—but the advice applies universally. If what you’re writing doesn’t convey excitement, then write something that does.

“And if your product is awesome, then you don’t need to gild the lily with frantic words and shouty little exclamation marks.”

So let’s not shout. And let’s ease up on the hot peppers too. Let’s give Civility a call and see if she’d like to come back to a slightly warmer climate. Toning down the rhetoric—that’s another great way to avoid exclamation points.

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