Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Common Writing Errors 3: Multiple Punctuation Marks

Hello Everyone

After my previous Common Writing Errors post, a friend asked if I could do one on that social media blight, multiple exclamation marks. Not that social media is the only place this error occurs. I have also seen it in students’ writing over the years, possibly because of texting and the like. So, I was happy to oblige (Thanks, Dai), though to give this post a little more substance, I decided to make the topic ‘multiple punctuation marks’.

The first rule (or guideline, if you prefer) is Don’t. Don’t use multiple punctuation marks at all. I certainly remember being told this during one of my grammar courses years ago. However, the person who drilled that rule into me was obviously not a practitioner and so hadn’t thought of occasions such as this:

‘What do you mean Susan said “How come the party isn’t at my place?”?’ Trevor said.

That’s four punctuation marks in a row in a legitimate sentence!

So, the rule should be, Don’t use multiple punctuation marks when they are unnecessary. An example of this would be another common texting-influenced habit:

She’s pregnant?!

The pedant in me wants to say, Make up your mind: the statement is either a question—Is she pregnant?—or an exclamation—She’s pregnant! You can’t have it both ways.

Yet, this particular punctuation mark has a name, the Interrobang, a combination of ‘interrogatio, which is Latin for ‘an inquiry, an interrogation’, and bang, which is printers’ slang for the exclamation mark. The interrobang is used in informal writing, such as texting, to show a combination of surprise and question, though something like the sentence below is getting ridiculous:

Simon did what?!?!?!

I realise that such usage helps in communications that don’t have the space to show emotion, but there really isn’t a place for it in formal writing, in which the writer should have the skill to convey emotion to the reader through appropriate word choice. The only exception to this might be a first person narrative in which such usage, as in the case of slang or poor grammatical structure, is trying to convey something about the personality of the narrator.

Now to the original reason for this post: multiple exclamation marks. My first reaction is that one shouldn’t use exclamation marks at all because, as F Scott Fitzgerald once said, An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. To use an exclamation mark is to tell the reader something is important, whereas you should use language around that something to convey its importance.


‘Get out!’ Harry shouted to his son.


Harry slammed his palms down on the dining table. ‘Get out,’ he said through clenched teeth.

The first statement tells the reader, in heavy-handed language (the exclamation and the shouting) what happened, while the second shows what happened and gives the reader a chance to feel the emotions of the event.

The observant amongst you would have realised I actually used an exclamation mark earlier in this post. That’s because I wanted to show that there are situations where they can be used for emphasis, but the trick is not to overuse them. My advice would be to only to use one per chapter, or per article, as in this case.

Finally, given all of the above, the answer to my friend’s concern is the rule that one should not use multiple exclamation marks at all, even in social media. To do so would be like laughing uncontrollably at your own joke and not realizing everyone else is backing away and looking at you as if you’re mad.

I hope you now won’t be tempted to use multiple punctuation marks of any sort unless the grammar requires it or you’re texting and haven’t the space for nuanced writing.

As always, I welcome any comments?! J

Warm wishes



Ian Robinson said...

‘What do you mean Susan said “How come the party isn’t at my place?”?’ Trevor said.



Earl Livings said...

Hi Ian,

No, there shouldn't be one. A dialogue sentence that ends in a question mark doesn't need one:

'Are you an ex-TAFE teacher?' Earl said.

Great to hear from you. I hope all is well with your writing and life in general.