Everyone knows that ending a sentence with a period is just about the rudest thing one human can do to another, murder and cuckoldry notwithstanding.
“I hope this note finds you well.” Brutal. “See you then.” Honestly, a little menacing.
It wasn’t always this way—periods have only taken on a sinister cast in response to the rampant exclamation point inflation of the past 15 or so years. The advent of smartphones and, before them, the personal computer, led to the rise of emailing and texting, which long ago surpassed the spoken word as our dominant form of communication. An article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal joins a chorus of other publications that have written about our changing terminal punctuation mores—and the anxiety they can cause. (An anecdote in the WSJ story focused on an employee who thought her boss was angry at her when she ended an email without a slammer.)
What can we do about this? Is there any way to fight back? Or are we doomed to live in a world where every sentence will need to have a minimum of three exclamation points in order to be read as anything less than outright hostile? The WSJ details the individual ways a few employees have chosen to confront our modern mash of bangers: One accountant vowed to take a stand by no longer mimicking the communication habits of his fellow employees, which he had previously done for the sole purpose of not seeming rude. A law firm associate also quit exclaiming in emails cold turkey and has found it “freeing.”
For those of us who lack that kind of willpower, James Hamblin, an editor at the Atlantic, offered an ingenious suggestion on Twitter, namely that those concerned about their exclamation point use ought to adopt a new email signature: “here are some additional !!!! if I didn’t use enough. please put them wherever makes you feel appreciated and like I’m friendly and fun but still cool and professional. thanks.”
It’s a clever idea, but I don’t think an opt-in solution is the way to go here. For one thing, it only addresses the concerns of people who fear not seeming friendly enough in their communications. It does nothing to assuage the worries of people who dislike being on the receiving end of sentences that end in cold, unfeeling periods. In order to really attack this problem, we need address it on a societal level.
So I would like to propose full exclamation-point amnesty. What that means is that from now on, there is effectively no difference between exclamation points and periods. “Yes.” and “Yes!” mean exactly the same thing. So do “Thanks!” and “Thanks.” It will take some reprogramming your brain, sure, but think how many problems this will solve; the overexclaimers can keep overexclaiming, and the full-stoppers can keep full-stopping. When you say, “Happy birthday!,” feel free to use an exclamation point, just know that some people will interpret it as “Happy birthday.”—which is fine, because we’ve officially done away with all the curt, harsh associations the period used to carry. Problem solved, world peace achieved (I really don’t see anyone disagreeing with this), funding secured.
You may be asking—if the exclamation point and the period mean the same thing, shouldn’t we just get rid of one? Good question. No. English is a language that has never particularly followed rules, so it’s fine for us to have two marks that mean the same thing. One day maybe you’ll explain to your grandkids that periods and exclamation marks used to have two different meanings, but that was before society decided it could not deal with the stress of having so many ways to end sentences. By the same token, we also will not be combining the period and exclamation mark into some separate new punctuation mark. As if Apple needs another excuse to declare our current products obsolete and sell us all new hardware.
We gave it a shot, but English-speaking society has proven that having two ways to end certain sentences is a privilege and not a right, and so we must simplify our options rather than continue to devote energy to this ever-deepening fissure. Repeat it until it sticks: There is no meaningful difference between periods and exclamation marks. Instead, we shall derive our meaning from words. Well, words and emojis.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus