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Textual communication troubles: Are we overusing exclamation points?!!

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Ariel Zambelich/NPR

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You’ve likely started a work email like this: “Happy to hear from you!”

Seems friendly, amicable, professional – right?

What about, “Happy to hear from you.”

Does that seem passive aggressive or even rude, even though you are ostensibly “happy” to hear from this person, as you’ve so explicitly written in your email?

That’s probably because we’ve gotten so acclimated to using exclamation points over email and text that going sans seems wrong. What was once a punctuation mark meant to relay overwhelming excitement is now just a marker of goodwill. In linguistics it’s called “verbal inflation” – the idea that once you express a certain level of enthusiasm you have to keep upping the ante so as not to seem like you’re dampening the mood.

Some have revolted against exclamation points, scrubbing them from emails once they’re written. But it’s not just exclamation points that get people agonizing over emails or spending too much time poring over emails received. If you’re from an older generation, you might be familiar with the ellipses as a sign off, which once conveyed “let’s continue the conversation” but to millennials reads more like a vague and undercutting trail off. Then there’s the world of emojis… what they mean alone or in combinations, and whether they belong in the professional world at all.

Do you spend time stressing about over work emails and texts, trying to convey just the right amount of enthusiasm? Have you ever stopped using exclamation points and has it ever gotten you in trouble? What textual tics drive you up the wall?


Gretchen McCulloch, linguist who studies the language of the internet; her podcast is “Lingthusiasm,” a podcast for people who are enthusiastic about linguistics; she tweets @GretchenAMcC

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and author of the book, “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships” (Ballantine Books, 2017) which is released today as a paperback