Lexicon Valley

That Is Not How You Use An Exclamation Mark, Kim Kardashian  

On Friday morning, Kim Kardashian West tweeted the following:

Kardashian West, who has an Armenian father, surely meant to use her platform to honor the more than 800,000 political minorities who died in an Ottoman purge in 1915. And good for her. But the tweet makes “Armenian Genocide” sound like a novel published in the early 1900s, or a clothes-swap nonprofit celebrating its centenary. Her noble intentions were ill served by her terrible use of an exclamation point.

The exclamation point has come a long way from just expressing emphatic feeling or punctuating a command. Its informality (“Do not use in a business letter,” instruct the style guides, nor in “academic prose”) has made it joyous. It signals enthusiasm, bubbly excitement, and positivity, as in: Hey, check this out! or Here’s a cool thing! or I’m happy about this thing! Basically, if there is a category of sentiments that are as wildly incongruous as possible with the notion of historico-politically treacherous mass murder, it is the category for which you would use exclamation points.

What diacritical recourse might Kardashian West have sought instead? An ellipsis would have suggested apathy, world-weariness, or perhaps exasperation that others weren’t taking the past seriously. Or it would have implied that Kardashian West had far more to say than she could fit in a tweet. A period would have conveyed solemn, reserved contemplation—an awareness that the hour called for reflection, not emotive excess. It would also have imparted a sense of perspective, even humility. Because the exclam’s role is to add emotional color, it throws the spotlight on the way the speaker is feeling. In Kardashian West’s case, this reads as narcissistic, since how she feels about the genocide is so much less significant than the fact that it happened. (The exclamation-pointed sentence’s Kimcentric follow-up—“I am proud to now say I have been to Armenia”—doesn’t help, nor does a photo of the family posing, solemnly but in glamourwear, at a memorial.)

You can soooorrrrt of understand where Kardashian West went astray, given that exclamation marks have achieved a quasi-mandatory status as politeness indicators online. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period,” Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty told New York. Or maybe Kardashian West wanted her followers to know she was genuinely moved by the anniversary—in a world where “Thanks!” means “thanks” and “Thanks.” means “I hate you,” perhaps “A lot of people died a hundred years ago today!” means “please do not think I am being ironic about a hideous act of murder.” It is also possible that Kardashian West wished to underline her sense of shock, and to transmit that jolt of painful consciousness to her fans: Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide! Can you believe it? Or, she may have been employing what one of my colleagues has christened the “informative” or “child’s” exclam, which communicates daffy delight at the transmission of knowledge: George Washington was our first president! (FWIW, also totally inappropriate.)

Unlike some writers, I am not a die-hard exclam eschewer, but Kardashian West’s dissonant diacritical gives the whole tribe a bad name. And while it makes sense that we would be eager to inject verve and ginger into our toneless prose, the onslaught of exclamation points in online text can lead to a kind of punctuation arms race, whereby the genuine expression of enthusiasm requires crazy cataracts of marks. My personal bugbear in this vein is “emoji OCD.” That is, the condition in which your correspondent is psychically obligated to stick an emoji at the end of every line, as if no text were complete without a pictorial tag announcing how the sender feels about said text. At least Kardashian West didn’t wrap up her tweet with a cry face. Small blessings!