Keep calm and carry on!!!

Keep calm and carry on!!!

Maybe, just maybe, we’re using the exclamation mark a bit too much these days

By Indrajit Hazra

Published: Fri 29 Mar 2013, 7:50 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:34 PM

Last Sunday, getting into the spirit of St Patrick’s Day, I ended all my sentences with a tone of enquiry. So while ordering some rolls for dinner over the phone, I told the man on the other end, “One single egg-single mutton roll? One single egg roll? And half plate biryani?" To be fair, in Hindi, the ever-questioning tail-lifted tone that the Irish are noted for when stating anything even plainly didn’t sound that question-marked. But I did proceed to speak in English to a neighbour later that evening and, this time, my dip-up at the end of each line was noticeable. “I'm stepping out to buy a few things? Let me come back and give you a call? I’d love to drop by?”

But if St Patrick’s Day made me stick an interrogatory tone to everything for a day (and a half), how do you explain the practice of more and more perfectly level-headed people — Irish and otherwise — speaking in exclamation and writing (whether emails or text messages) sentences with an exclamation mark? (No, that last question mark was a real rhetorical query rather than the tonal habit of good old Gerry Adams who dragged on the IRA cause because of a misunderstanding over the way he would say, “We want peace. You want peace”, with London and the Unionists hearing his words as a Republican taunt and challenge.)

Exclamation marks have proliferated in people’s communications like randy kangaroos in the Australian outback. I regularly get emails that start with ‘Dear Mr Hazra!’ or ‘Hello Indrajit!’ as I was the fortunate human witnessing mankind’s first contact with aliens with their perfectable understandable message, ‘Greetings Earthling!’.

The exclamation mark, brought into the written English language in the 15th century, was originally meant to denote a sign of admiration or, er, exclamation. So on seeing a glorious Sachin Tendulkar cover drive, even the most morose spectator is well within his rights to exclaim,

“Glorious!” Folks from the Spanish-speaking world, on the other hand, advertise their Latin passion with two exclamation marks — the first one passionately upside down — on either end of an excitable sentence.

So while a person in other cultures will say a standard ‘Shukriya’ or ‘Thanks’ after the checkout girl has handed back the shopping change, the Spanish-speaker will exclaim ¡Muchas gracias!

Things were tougher for exclamation mark junkies before the 1960s when typewriters — they were keyboards that made a louder sound, children — came without an exclamation mark key. A typist wishing to put down “My God!” or “Manpreet! Return my grandmother at once!” would have to type a full stop, press on the backspace key, and type an apostrophe to get an exclamation going — with a whole lot of empty space between the dot at the bottom and the vertical stalk above it. That could explain why there used to be a certain conservatism once when it came to throwing around exclamations and their accompanying punctuation marks. Nowadays, it’s as endemic as teenage girls who are Twilight fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an exclamationophobe. To hear or read “Long live the revolution” or “Goal” is not the same as to hear and read “Long live the revolution!” or “Goal!” It's just that an ‘!’ is more effective when used sparingly. Somehow, somewhere down the line, the exclamation mark became a cipher for friendliness — over-friendliness. Even Bengali, my mother tongue, hasn’t been spared its over-enthusiastic over-presence. But then, I’ve been told — and quite correctly too — that even if there was no exclamation mark, it had to be invented for the over-excited Bengali (since they were always too lazy to invent it themselves).

I’m more in agreement with Scott Fitzgerald who believed that using an exclamation mark is like laughing at one’s own jokes. But try telling that to everyone!!!!!!

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