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WTF???!!!! Lean punctuation in a world with too many exclamation marks

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Lean punctuation – OMG with too many exclamation marks

'Have we hit peak punctuation?' asks Megan Garber in The Atlantic. She highlights a growing trend towards excessive, almost epic, levels of punctuation.

Peak punctuation

Even as we exhort writers to use fewer, shorter words, people are using more and more punctuation and quasi-punctuation. For example:

  • Why use one exclamation mark when three or four shouts even more surprise? ('Prime Rib Saturday!!!!')
  • The humble ellipsis ('...') is now a dramatic pause worthy of the Royal Shakespeare Company. ('OK........')
  • Multiple question marks have become the equivalent of an arched, ironic eyebrow ('WTF????')
  • Then there are smileys, emoticons and emojis. ;-)

I think all this has evolved from informal email or chat where there is a desperate need for emotional context. We're adapting to new electronic media. In fact, Garber argues that new technology - in particular video chat and embedded images - will reduce the need for all those exclamation marks.

Alternatively, try 'some sort of mood stabilizer', suggests the ABC...Silly blog (also the source of the OMG image above).

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Punctuation danger

There is, however, a huge danger for writers in becoming too formal and starchy.

But, while we strongly believe in a relaxed conversational tone of voice for almost all businesses, there is an equal and opposite danger in becoming too relaxed. Businesses should avoid over-punctuation and embedding too much context in public copy.

You don't want to sound like a bank manager or lawyer but equally, you don't want to sound like a textually challenged teenager.

Lean punctuation

At Articulate, we're punctuation minimalists. Lean punctuation means using as few speed bumps as possible in your text. Our writer's guide has the following advice:

  • We don’t capitalise internet or website.
  • We use percent not per cent or %.
  • We use sentence case for headlines and subheadlines.
  • No comma before 'and' in a list, eg ‘One, two and three’ not ‘one, two, and three’.
  • Leave one space after a full stop.
  • We put full stops at the end of bullet points unless they are clearly not sentences in their own right (eg a list of single words).
  • Do not use full stops in abbreviations such as Mr, Dr, eg, ie, etc.
  • Spell out numbers from one to ten and anything that is already a number (eg Chapter 7) and percentages (eg 6 percent). Use figures from 11, except at the start of a sentence when they should be spelt out.
  • Dates are written like this: 12 March 1969.
  • We avoid acronyms unless they are very familiar (eg DVD, PC) or a client product name and we spell out the meaning very clearly.
  • Avoid italic text apart from foreign words, unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised eg status quo, carte blanche, déjà vu, etc. But you probably shouldn’t be using unfamiliar foreign words anyway.
  • We use ‘single quotation’ marks for speech and double quotation marks for nested quotations: ‘and then he said “that’s a good idea” all of a sudden’.
  • Punctuate the quote as required by the quote and punctuate the sentence as required by the sentence.

Our job is to write for our readers and make it as easy as possible for them to read, enjoy and remember our copy. Punctuation gets in the way like small Lego bricks in the carpet when you want to walk around barefoot. Use it sparingly.

better business writing

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.