A Friendly Person's Guide to Using Exclamation Marks Correctly! And Incorrectly!
I have a soft spot in my heart for the exclamation point. Something about it just seems friendly to me—I consider it the warm smile of the punctuation world. And, admittedly, I’ll sprinkle it in whenever I can. Honestly, probably too much.
There have been plenty of times when I’ve gone back to read an email draft before sending, only to find that I sound like a hyped up, peppy cheerleader who’s quite literally chanting and clapping to the recipient. Entertaining? Probably. But, it’s not exactly the professional reputation I’m shooting for.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on when you should use the exclamation point and when you’re better off sticking with that boring ol’ period. So, if you tend to fall into the same overly-enthusiastic trap I often find myself in, I’ve pulled together this handy guide just for you.
Here are three times you can go ahead and whip out that beloved punctuation—as well as three times you better hit the backspace button.
Use it When You’re Genuinely Excited About Something
Just look at the word exclamation point, and it becomes obvious that it’s meant to be used when you’re exclaiming something—also known as saying something with great emotion, such as surprise, excitement, or even anger.
This punctuation should be reserved for those times when you really are hoping to convey significant excitement or joy. So, a quick note to a co-worker saying, “Congrats on the arrival of your new bundle of joy!” is totally copasetic.
But Lose it When You’re Excited About Everything
Nobody exclaims absolutely everything—at least I certainly hope not. So, then why do you feel the need to end every single sentence of your email with that mark?
Give your message a read and delete the exclamation point from any place that’s unworthy of that level of excitement. If you use it everywhere, it’s not only somewhat annoying, but it’s also going to lose its meaning. Nobody will be able to tell when you’re trying to convey genuine enthusiasm anymore, because everything you write seems like you’re saying it with giddiness.
So, use the power of the exclamation point sparingly. Yes, the recognition of a new baby, a marriage, a birthday, or even a “thank you” is deserving of some excitement. But, something like, “I’ll have that expense report completed by Friday!!!”—not so much.
Use it When You Need to Lighten the Mood
There are those emails that aren’t so fun to send—such as needing to ask a co-worker to make significant changes to a project he’s worked on for weeks. And, as dreadful as that email is for you to write, it’s even more terrible for that person to read.
An exclamation point can come in handy in these situations, when you’re eager to inject some friendliness in order to lighten the tense mood just a bit. In a case like this, ending your message with a quick, “I really appreciate all of your hard work on this, Jason!” can help your email to sound more supportive and encouraging—rather than brutal and demanding.
But Lose it When You’re Being Stern
However, of course, there’s a line here. If your email is meant to be more strict and straightforward, that seemingly bubbly punctuation can come off as both out of place and condescending—or, even worse, like you’re literally screaming at that person.
So, your best bet is to just play it safe and stay far away from that mark when you need to craft an email that’s firm or harsh. A line like, “Susan, these drafts are all completely wrong!!!” just isn’t going to be well-received. You’ve been warned.
Use it for Friendly Correspondence
Like I said earlier, the exclamation point seems to be the friendliest of all punctuation. So, it only makes sense that you’d save it for more friendly and casual correspondence.
That happy hour invite email to your team or a quick note thanking your co-worker for bringing in her famous guacamole? A touch of enthusiasm in the form of appropriate punctuation is more than warranted in those situations—even if it’s coming from your professional email address.
But Lose it When You’re Aiming to Be Strictly Professional
When your goal is to be seen as a polished and respected professional, you’re usually better off skipping the exclamation point altogether. And, while this might make things seem a little colder, more formal, or a touch impersonal, you’re smarter to go that route than to get too conversational too fast.
Your resume or cover letter, for example? Those should definitely be exclamation point free.
Use it Once
Here’s a general rule of thumb you can stick to if you find you can’t stand to tear yourself away from that beloved piece of punctuation completely: Use it once. And, I mean only once.
Pick the place that you think it fits best in your written message, and then delete all of the others. Yes, it’s a little cutthroat. But, it’s undoubtedly effective.
But Never More Than That
If you don’t attempt to restrict yourself to only one exclamation point, you’re going to run the risk of sliding back into your old habits and having it peppered everywhere.
Even if you disregard all of the other rules, sticking with this requirement will ensure that your favorite punctuation is reserved for only the times that really deserve it.
How do you decide when to use the exclamation point and when to let it go? Let me know on Twitter—but, think twice about your punctuation first.
Photo of happy person courtesy of TommL/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author