Probably when you and your friends gather around the campfire, warm your hands over the Buffalo wings, and slake your your thirst with a cold Ballantine Ale, the talk is not about punctuation. That’s all right. You’re fine. Whatever you want to argue over is up to you.
In the circles in which I revolve, my crowd has spent many an evening in hot dispute over the use of exclamation points. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Or, it might be semi-colons, even commas.
Daily, one confronts the prose composition eccentricities of the many-headed. Over the years these have included not only language, grammar, punctuation, vulgarities (especially common these days), and topic anomalies, but even excursions that aren’t prose at all. Among the weirdest of these is the devotion to the most self-effacing kind of expression, which does not use capitalization to signal the beginning of a new sentence, or to distinguish proper nouns. They are grammatically modest, to a confusing degree. For these, I is i, and God (or god) forbid a reader might conclude that the writer’s opinion of himself is exalted. Strangely, the use of that un-capped i in sentence after sentence may infiltrate some ambiguity into the reader’s assessment of the writer’s apparent humility, but each of us is free to make up her own mind about that.
For reasons that I think are wholly unrelated to the no I in i impulse, other writers omit periods at the ends of sentences, preferring the mark for ellipses instead. Thus “john visited judy this evening … they watched some tv then ate some ice cream … then … “
The sentence pretends to explain what john and judy did, but what did they do, really, especially after the ice cream? Inquiring minds want to know. The three dots don’t indicate the end of a sentence, as some letter writers imagine that they do. The period, acting alone, does that. The three dots can indicate an elision or omission, something left out, and not by accident. It may also suggest that the writer merely lost the thread and, instead of searching for it, set down an unwritten “what the hell” and went on.
Oh, and then there is the absence of periods altogether. Some writers compose one long utterly unpunctuated sentence. Their view, I think, is that the reader deserves a challenge and will somehow make sense out of what they are trying to say.
Or there is the apparently irresistible urge some writers, commenters, tweeters, and others have to add some pop to their message. They bring out the all-caps big guns, figuring that they will give whatever they had in mind to disparage a sound beating. “THAT STUPID BASTARD GOT THE THUMPING HE DESERVED,” as if being called a no-caps ‘stupid bastard’ who got a ‘thumping’ wouldn’t sting.
For all these compositional miscreants, semi-colons, capitalization, and even commas are the least of their failings. And, I won’t torment you with spelling.
Turning to semi-colons, I’m not a fan. Of course, they have a job to do in written expression more formal than tweets. But in everyday communication commas, on the other hand, are useful, and they enhance expression by adding clarity – if clarity is what the writer is after. Sometimes, obviously, it is not meaning or clarity he is after but clamor. Commas don’t lay there on the page being merely grammatical, even puzzlingly so. Their job is to say, “Pause a beat, take a breath, here’s a supplementary idea, now go on.” They are especially useful to brighten a complicated but murky idea, particularly when it began for the writer as a treasured thought but was on its way to being a jumble.
Anyhow, what are really on my mind are exclamation points. I hate them. The problems are duplication and excess. When someone writes “Wow,” the word is an exclamation. Adding !!! doesn’t add a thing, except perhaps the suggestion that the writer is feigning an enthusiasm and disguising insincerity. After all, no one is really three exclamation points worth of eager, and if someone is, do we want have written communication with such a demented soul?
If one writes “Thanks,” or even “Thanks a lot,” will the addition of a ! or even three !!! enlarge one’s gratitude or make it more heartfelt. If it was not heartfelt when it was represented by by the word alone, how can it be made so with a punctuation mark?
My theory – and you may conclude that it derives from my view that everything was better years ago, although that is not exactly or completely my view – is that when we moved from typewriters to computer keyboards, writers embraced the license to clutter one’s prose with exclamation points, and now (the horror) emoji. In the days of the Underwood, you could bang on the keys all you wanted, but you couldn’t find one labeled exclamation point. There were commas, apostrophes that could double as quotation marks, even semi-colons, but no exclamation points. Writers kept their enthusiasms in check. They committed more modest prose. If you wanted to inflate your emotion with an exclamation point, you had to type the period, then backspace, then type the shift-apostrophe. It was a nuisance, so writers restrained themselves. If they wanted to fly their emotional freak flag, they had to find the words.