What Your Punctuation Says About You

552capslock angry

I proofread an email my mother wrote the other day and knew instantly she had crossed into senior citizenry with her usage of the much-dreaded ALL CAPS.

“Don’t ever write in all caps,” I told her.

“Why? It’s easier to read.”

“No, it’s not. It means you’re Old Yeller. And I don’t mean the feisty, heroic dog kind.”

“What if I meant to yell?”

“Then exclaim! But for the sake of humanity, get your pinky off the caps lock.”

I picture all the heated reviews of products that have failed her and I know she will continue down this self-destructive road of punctuation butchery.

All caps with no punctuation = seething. When someone is seething, they just can’t be bothered with trivial things like periods or exclamation marks. Punctuation be damned!

Of course, we use punctuation differently in each social medium, which limits my knowledge to this small blog, an iPhone and mental telepathy. But if I look over my texts, I’m amazed at how the exclamation mark is vital. Bland, banal sentences are suddenly exclaimed. And the more the merrier. Happy New Year!!!! Great to see you!!!! My house is blue!!! We’re having chicken tonight!!!

And if you don’t? You’re a coldhearted snake. Happy New Year is not the same as Happy New Year! And I feel more love in Thank You! than Thank You. That period is chilly. Can I get an amen?!!


But there is resistance amongst some. The exclamation mark is more of an emotional investment. People may wonder if they appear too eager, too aggressive, too silly. You’re no longer saying something. You’re exclaiming something. Hello. Hello! It’s safer to throw down that period. It’s more mysterious — less accessible. Or perhaps the exclamation mark feels disingenuous. There have been times I’ve been dead on the couch and text someone: Can’t wait to see you! The exclamation mark gives off the illusion of energy and excitement when really I feel like this:


I’d much rather watch old reruns of Seinfeld in stretchy pants and pass out at 9 pm. But I need that kick in the ass exclamation mark because somewhere deep, deep down, I really do want to see this person. I’m just beat. If they phoned me and heard my voice, the façade is too detectable. That’s why no one calls anyone anymore.

This casual use of excitement somewhat applies to email, too. But it can be deceptive. I once corresponded with a teacher who was delightful in written form. In person, however, she was this:


I was perplexed at her exuberant and enthusiastic written voice and believed she had no right to exclaim with happy sentences. She was in violation of writer fraud and should cease and dismiss her false punctuation and pleasant style.

Use them too much, however, and you quickly become that person who has finally discovered a rainbow of Skittles:


Remember: The period can never be replaced. Period.

In novel writing, the best form of punctuation is the kind you do not see or notice. It’s so purposeful it blends into the background. This is grammar working properly, elevating prose and breathing life into a story as seamlessly as possible. This is why I find the most evil violation of punctuation in novel writing is the abandonment of proper usage. (I’m thinking of you Cormac McCarthy! It wouldn’t have taken me 5 years to read All the Pretty Horses if you had just used quotes for your dialogue.) As soon as I see an author can’t be bothered, either can I. It’s a risky and self-indulgent proposition. That’s when you sharpen your exclamation points into daggers and commence throwing . . .  Pew! Pew! Pew!

Has anyone else been thrown off by someone’s punctuation usage?


9 thoughts on “What Your Punctuation Says About You

  1. Debbie

    With blogging (and especially commenting), I happen to be one of those exclamation point lovers! (See, there I go again!). It fits me. Debbie Sunshine. I have to rein it in, or people will think I’m always happy (which, generally, I am!) That said, I agree that unobtrusive punctuation (the kind we expect not to see) is probably best when writing more formally. And I’ve never been fond of the Caps Lock button.

    1. desertdweller29

      The all caps doesn’t suit you, Professor. But it’s very intriguing that you enjoy swearing! You never swear on your blog, dammit! Do you think it would upset the PLers? I love a good swear-fest myself. It’s very writerly, you know. I just heard Stephen King give a talk with nice amount of f-bombs thrown in.

  2. FictionFan

    Great post!!!!! I don’t think I’d be capable of communication at all without the exclamation point. Apart from anything else, in my day (centuries ago) all teachers preached against ever using it, so it makes me feel like a rebel!!! But I HATE WHEN PEOPLE USE ALL CAPS!!!! Caps should be kept for when you REALLY want to emphasise something! SHOULDN’T THEY?!?

    (But I do agree that in novels standard punctuation works much better.)

  3. Don Royster

    I am very selective about the company I keep. Guess that is why I followed you. As someone who is selective, I only use five punctuations. A comma. Let’s hear it for Fred Comma. What a guy. (See. I do not need an exclamation mark.) Then there’s Johnny Period. What would I do without him. I would be like that German philosopher, Kant. His sentence run a week long. I just don’t have that much breath. And I have better things to do with my time. Then there are the Siamese twins, the Quote Sisters, Ina and Outta. They do have a way with conversation. Add Doris Question Mark to the conversation and we have dialogue. Finally, it’s Parey. That’s Jack Parenthesis nick. Such good companions. We’re besties.

    So what do I need with those others. If I invite the colon, the semi, the ellipsis and the hated EXCLAMATION MARK! What a drag. If I use the exclamation and all caps, I am going to wonder when you’re going to lose your voice from all the screaming. And if you use them all the time, they no longer have the effect they were meant to have. If we use the proper words, people will know what we need. I can figure out a way to say something without screaming. Such as I am absolutely looking forward to our dinner together. I can’t wait.

    The major reason we end up with poor punc is that only about 9 % of our communication is based on words. Something like 70 % is body language and 21 % is tone of voice. Without tone of voice and body language, a lot of the time most of us are screwed. (Now I didn’t need an exclamation mark for you to get my message, did I? Screwed works quite well.)

    As far as writers like Cormac McCarthy are concerned, they are just show offs. They want to convince us that they are smarter than us. One Faulkner was enough. We don’t need anymore, Mr. McCarthy. Give me a simple Ernest Hemingway sentence any day and I am a happy man.

  4. desertdweller29

    You are definitely the conservative punctuation user, Don. I respect that. I’m more unruly, however. I don’t discriminate and tend to overuse ellipsis (see below). I definitely need an editor looking after me. I use exclamation marks in blog writing, texts and emails, not when novel writing . . . It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine breaks up with a guy because he used a period in a message about her friend having a baby. Sometimes you just have to exclaim!

    Love your reply. It’s a post all by itself. And very clever!

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