Rob Walker writes of a new punctuation mark proposed by Ellen Susan: the ElRey, a cross between an exclamation point and a period.
The underlying problem is of course overuse of the traditional exclamation mark in the email/social network era, to the extent that the meaning of this venerable symbol has been severely undermined. I can recall coming across advice when I was in college in the late 1980s suggesting that it was permissible to use an exclamation mark once every twenty years or so. Today I probably type one every twenty minutes. I’m not doing so in published work, naturally, but rather in email: “Thanks!” “Congrats!” “See you soon!” It’s not just me. Even as I was writing this paragraph, I got a note from a highly erudite editor of a widely respected literary/cultural journal: “You are too kind!”
I actually hadn’t been kind to any excitable-making extent in the missive he was responding to. But we both knew that. Consider a non-exclamation-point version of my correspondent’s message: “You are too kind.” That reads dry, chilly, possibly even sarcastic. Which suggests how the function of the exclamation mark has changed: It no longer connotes remarkable enthusiasm; it just signals a sort of general friendliness and baseline cheer, the equivalent of saying “Howyadoin?” in a chipper voice.
I encounter this problem all the time, the phrase ending in a period that ends up looking too cold on the page. It's a curse of the prevalence of sarcasm and irony in this age that just writing something in a plainspoken way is read far too often as disingenuous.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating the importance of conveying genuine warmth, I've had at least two arguments with friends over the tone of an email message sent with nothing but the friendliest sentiment. I've often wondered if there was a defect in the language itself.
So to compensate, I've tried all the popular alternatives to an exclamation point. Adding a smiley face:
Friendly, but it doesn't feel right for me (don't even bring up emoji). I've tried setting it in bold for visual emphasis.
That usually feels too serious, and while I'm usually an even keeled guy, I do feel and wish to convey genuine enthusiasm.
I'm not sure if the ElRey is the solution, but I feel the need for that mark or something like it.