James Clarke Masthead
August 20 2012 at 10:29

In January I coined the word “cyberscreamers” for those tweeters and e-mailers who love exclamation marks and sending out warnings about all sorts of highly unlikely or even fabricated crimes.

One such message is about filling stations giving away elaborate key rings – “but BE WARNED!!!!!”

The message claims these have a built-in device so that crooks can follow you home and nick your car.

Another warns about men who sidle up to women on the street inviting them to take a sniff of a new perfume. But it’s not perfume! It’s ETHER!!!!

One sniff and you fall unconscious!!! Then he will have his way with you!!!!! WARN ALL YOUR FRIENDS!!!

Actually there are even more exclamation marks than I have indicated here but I have almost exhausted my lifetime allocation.

In journalism we call exclamation marks “screamers”. They are almost never used in newspapers. News stories don’t use them because they constitute a comment. But among people who compulsively tweet and e-mail, these marks are used almost as much as full stops and certainly more than commas.

Ben Yagoda, author and a professor of English at the University of Delaware – his latest book How to Not Write Bad is about to be published – wrote in the New York Times this month: “Anybody who has ever logged on knows that online writing begets exclamation points.

“A lot of exclamation points!

“Mocking this punctuational predilection is easy and fun.”

He cites an example from a blog called “Excessive Exclamation!!”

It included a facsimile of a printed receipt with the words “PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW WE DID!!!”

He also quotes Steve Martin who recently tweeted: “David Shipley, the executive editor of Bloomberg View and a former Op-Ed editor at this newspaper (New York Times), and Will Schwalbe, authors of ‘Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better’, speculate that the trend stems in part from the nature of online media.

“Shipley and Schwalbe write: ‘Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be.’

“But what if a particular point needs to be stressed beyond where it would normally be?

“Well, you need to kick it up an additional notch, with another exclamation point, or three. The unsurprising result has been Weimar-level exclamation inflation, where (it sometimes seems) you have to raise your voice to a scream merely to be heard, and a sentence without blingy punctuation comes across like a whisper.”

Exclamation marks are often meant to inform the reader that what has preceded it was, in fact, unusual or contains a nuance the reader might otherwise miss.

Nobody is better at sensationalism than the tweeting and e-mailing public.

Typically one might receive a message in bright red 48pt capitals preceded by a score of e-mail addresses indicating it has been relayed by many others across the globe: “BE WARNED!!!!!! NEVER!!! EVER!!! leave your car window open while WEARING, SAY, A DIAMOND TIARA OR WITH A GOLD BAR IN YOUR LAP!!! POLICE WARN THAT A NEW RUSE FOR ROBBING PEOPLE WEARING TIARAS…”

Exclamation marks are best used as one would use a rare and expensive spice – they should be used only to add a touch of urgency to a word or phrase, or perhaps to share with the reader a sense of surprise.

Two dozen should last a normal person a lifetime. Look at Obama’s campaign slogan – “Forward.” Just that – and the full stop. It is flat and uninspiring. But see how a “screamer” can add piquancy: “Forward!”


Contact Stoep: E-mail: jcl@onwe.co.za

Website: www.jamesclarke.co.za

Blog: http://stoeptalk.wordpress.com


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