Despite the best efforts of smartphone addicts, the exclamation mark looks to be on its way out

Last month, just before Christmas, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sent out a crisp missive to the museum’s staff. ‘The way people write on social media,’ said Eike Schmidt, ‘is dripping into the way they compose emails.’

The German boss, 54, had a list of demands for business correspondence: no bold text, no sentences in capital letters, no Oxford commas, no ellipses – and absolutely no repeated exclamation marks. ‘I want emails to be more efficient and to the point.’

He’s not the only one. Google Mail offers an extension that encourages users to delete exclamation marks from their emails. (The little flecks of enthusiasm are better used ‘with your friends, not your co-workers or clients’.) And back in 2016, Britain’s Department for Education instructed moderators of Key Stage 1 national curriculum tests to penalise pupils who used exclamation marks ‘inappropriately’ – which means any sentence that does not include a verb or start with ‘Oh!’ or ‘How!’.

I love an exclamation mark. Or, rather, I love an exclamation mark! These punctuation characters can be perceived as saccharine overkill, or a female obsession with appearing ‘nice’, but they’re fun! They’re harmless! That said, the problem is that when someone sends me an email without exclamation marks, I assume they hate me. A full stop at the end of a text equals all-out war.

Twentieth-century writers hardly bothered with exclamation marks, full stop. In his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway (pictured) used only one

According to Florence Hazrat, author of An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark!, the ‘!’ has always been ‘controversial’. Hazrat, 35, is an academic from Berlin, who has studied at Cambridge, St Andrews and Sheffield universities. In 2020 she was researching the history of the use of brackets in Renaissance literature and had to read endless papers about punctuation.

‘I came across negative attitudes towards the exclamation mark again and again,’ she says. ‘I thought, somebody has to write a defence of this! We need a manifesto for the exclamation mark: to reclaim it, save it and help it recuperate.’ (Pleasingly, when I email Hazrat to arrange our interview, her reply is full of exclamation marks. She is a woman of her word.)

In her book, Hazrat charts the history of the exclamation mark. It was introduced in the mid-14th century by the Italian scholar and poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia. He was fed up with people reading sentences, which were supposed to be ‘exclamatory or admirative’, in a way that sounded flat. ‘!’ was his solution.

By the mid-18th century, this punctuation point had become more than just an oral instruction. When Dr Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, he said that the exclamation mark existed to define a ‘pathetical sentence’ – one expressing strong emotions.

This might be why it fell out of fashion. As emotional writing became less cool, so too did the excitable exclamation mark. Jane Austen is said to have filled her novels with them only for her steely – and almost always male – editors to remove most of them from the final draft.

Twentieth-century writers hardly bothered with exclamation marks, full stop. In his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway used only one. In fact, for every 100,000 words of prose by Hemingway, there are an average of just 59 exclamation marks. John Updike was equally sparing – an average of 88 for every 100,000 words. And Cormac McCarthy once told an interviewer: ‘I believe in full stops, in capitals, in the occasional comma and that’s it.’

Somebody has to write a defence for this ‒ we need a manifesto

Still, Salman Rushdie deployed a whopping 2,131 exclamation marks in Midnight’s Children – an average of more than six a page – and that novel won the 1981 Booker Prize.

Unemotional writing styles aside, Hazrat says that there are practical reasons for the exclamation mark’s demise. Until the 1970s, typewriters didn’t have a key for it. If you wanted to use one, you had to press the full stop key, followed by backspace, then apostrophe. ‘If you don’t have an easy way to exclaim, you’re much less likely to do it,’ says Hazrat. And the people who could be bothered to type out exclamation marks were, probably, overzealous, loud and shrill. ‘They had to do gymnastics to get an exclamation mark. So that’s somebody who is really committed to exclaiming.’

It explains why older generations – who grew up using typewriters – are more likely to see ‘!’ as a shrieky choice. Meanwhile, Gen X and Millennials are also hampered with anti-exclamation-mark sentiment. Hazrat thinks this could be because of SMS messaging – where every extra character in a text cost the sender more money. Punctuation had to be picked with caution; repetition was an extravagance.

Which leaves me, a Gen Z-er – born with a smartphone and positively pampered in my ability to use as many !!!!!!! and !?!?!? as I like. (If you’re wondering, Hazrat says that the Gen Z habit of repeating punctuation is called ‘flooding’ in the grammar community. And the combination of a question mark and exclamation mark is called an ‘interrobang’. Who knew?!)

And yes, maybe Gen Z should cool off on the whole ‘full stops are aggressive’ thing. But Hazrat is just happy to see a generation embrace the exclamation mark so fully. ‘When we write, it’s so disembodied. We don’t have our facial expressions, we don’t have our posture, the tone of our voice, gestures.

There’s just so much in terms of communication that we lack when we have only words,’ she says. ‘But the exclamation mark brings tone, feeling and emotional presence into the text – just through one little mark. I think that’s kind of magic!’

An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark! by Florence Hazrat is published by Profile Books, £12.99*

*To order a copy for £11.69 until 13 february, go to or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.