If you aren’t aware, I am a linguist. I have a MSc in Applied Linguistics. I invent conlangs. I adore words. This also means that I think about language and the construction of language and the use of language a lot. And by a lot, I mean, well… a lot.
Given this behaviour, I tend to notice patterns in language a fair bit. And I’ve noticed something very interesting about the use of exclamation points in social media and other online communications. It serves a hugely interesting function, which I haven’t noticed in other written forms of communication before (or even still).
Generally in fiction, if a work has multiple exclamation points per page, then it reads very strangely. It feels almost like the author is yelling at you, trying to get you emotionally invested in the story and cannot do that with the normal accepted punctuation, which is a comma, period, semicolon or the like. I was taught in high-school that if you have more than one exclamation point per page—unless there are extraordinary circumstances—then you need to cut back your usage. And, from my fiction reading experiences, this holds to be quite true. I have very rarely read a book where exclamation points are used frequently, except in occasional dialogue situations that are very character-specific.
However, this behaviour is not at all accurate for the written communication I have seen in social media, chat rooms, and other online communications (emails have their own set of ever-changing rules which require a separate blog post of their own). In social media, you are trying to communicate with another person in a manner that is conversational. You are, therefore, trying to convey specific emotions. Many of these are assisted by the use of emojis, which act as substitute vocal inflectors or facial cues. There is a certain level of interest, though, that is often perceived in the use of punctuation within social media. For example:
A post stating:
I am currently out of tea!
This post can read as alarmed without any use of emojis or other indications of alarm. The alternate punctuation, which would be expected in fiction would be:
I am currently out of tea.
This reads as rather blasé, as if this person does not care whether they are out of tea or not. In fiction, this statement would likely be followed by narrative description, describing the character’s expression or next actions or even next thoughts. This provides the necessary context for a person to understand the intent behind this statement. Therefore, the extra emphasis provided by the ! does not prove necessary.
Social media is, by nature, a form of communication where this context is not provided. You have neither narrative description nor the cues that you might get with verbal or face-to-face communication with a person. Therefore, extra context is required. The use of emojis provides that context, but even those are not used universally. They also have different connotations for different people. The exclamation point, though, is a fairly universal indication of strong emotion, alarm, excitement, all emotions which can be determined from the phrase it emphasises.
In the above example, it would be unlikely that I would be discussing my lack of tea if I were excited about it. Unless I had been posting for weeks regarding my desire to dispose of the lefttover tea in my house because I suddenly hated tea, then this post would most likely be describing a state of alarm at the lack of tea. Most people would be able to correctly identify the alarm because of the exclamation point.
Another interesting use of exclamation points in social media is in conversation with other people. Often, the exclamation is used to show initial interest in a person’s post or comment or what-not. Then, if a second statement is present, it is usually ended with a period to show that the respondant is not overwhelmed with excitement and is, generally speaking, a normal communicator. However, most posts are not ended with a period because that signals an abrupt stop and often social media encourages the continuation of a conversation. Therefore, this second statement will likely be followed by an emoji or a third statement that ends with a period.
Anyways, none of these observations have been tested statistically. I have simply noticed this pattern and thought it interesting. Do you notice similar patterns? Something entirely different? I’m curious to know what you think! (Great, now I’m overanalysing my use of exclamation points.)