Call it the Great Tweet in the Sky, a text from the Almighty, an interstellar shout-out from the ultimate Facebook friend.
In August, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped a picture of colliding galaxies, a cosmic event 100 million years in the making. The galaxies — VV 340 North and VV 340 South — gave off the same purple haze but were vastly different in shape.
The north galaxy looked like a plump carrot plunging downward; the south resembled a hypnotist's swirling spiral. On their own they were cool enough. But when they commingled, the galaxies formed nothing less than . . .
. . . an exclamation point.
Or better yet:
An exclamation point!
The perkiest of punctuation is officially de rigueur these days, a white-hot woosh-thunk sprouting in e-mails and texts and blogs, on Facebook and Twitter. In cyberspace and space space!
Social media have turned our society from a verbal one to a heads-down written one. As we express ourselves via keyboards big and small — how happy, sad, sexy we all feel — we are using exclamation points by the gross. Our online lives now play out with all the subtlety of an old Batman episode.
Those colliding galaxies may suggest that a Higher Power with a Higher BlackBerry was getting in on the action, His Holy Thumbs as excited as ours.
Maybe God is following us on Twitter!
• • •
This is not a criticism, mind you. It's a confession. If something genuinely thrilling — okay, mildly interesting — happens to me, I'll unload a pistolero belt of exclamation points no matter the social-media forum.
I just bought a new car!!!
Charmin is BOGO at Publix!!!
I can't help myself. I can't stop. And I don't want to.
It feels good.
Punctuation as defibrillation: That's the exclamation point. It's the Botox of Twitter, the fake frozen smile of Facebook, the cheap special effect of e-mail.
First introduced in the 15th century as a "note of admiration," the exclamation point is used all over the world in languages based on the Latin alphabet. You won't find it in Hindi, but Greeks, Russians and Koreans all know how to signify their BOGO toilet-paper sales as well.
Things are so exclamatory these days that when we DON'T use an exclamation point, the person reading our correspondence — a girlfriend, perhaps — often will ask: What's wrong? You don't sound like yourself? :(((
Author Lynne Truss always sounds like herself — and she usually sounds amped.
"Since the advent of e-mail, I have personally started all my messages with a yell. Instead of 'Dear George,' I write 'George!,' " Truss told the New York Times.
As the author of the 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Truss qualifies as an expert. When it comes to communication on computer screens, she said, the blaring exclamation point is a way of "trying to keep the attention of the reader. . . . Writers are shouting to be heard."
• • •
Punctuation as caffeination: Is that a 21st century notion or what? And that jolt of linguistic espresso is not confined to e-mails and texts. When you are notified that someone is following you on Twitter, the notice is accompanied by a !, as if it were a stop-the-presses moment that Al's Snorkel Shop cares what you're having for dinner.
As a platform for brief, impersonal remarks, Twitter is a natural habitat for celebrities, who are paid to be noticed, and thus are also unabashed deployers of the exclamation point. Country singer and The Voice judge Blake Shelton, with some 735,000 followers, seems incapable of tweeting without dipping into his bottomless stash of at-the-ready points:
Guess who's downloading the new @martina mcbride album "Eleven." … This guy!!!!
Oh! Ho! Ho! Man!!!! Hey Mill Creek, Oklahoma, be on the lookout for a hog with a serious head injury!!!!
Facebook offers greater room for narcissism, voyeurism. The mood there tends to be less frantic than on Twitter, more dour and diary-entry. But that doesn't mean fewer exclamation points. A glance at Facebook offers these recent exclamatory entries:
the best cure for the gray sky pittsburgh depression... OLD SCHOOL MOTOWN!!!
Six people are dead and three are in critical condition after a shooting at a salon in Seal Beach, California. A simple divorce would have sufficed!!
Omw to the funeral. … Rest in Peace Big Bro Jermaine!! Gone But Not Forgotten… We will see each other Again! I Promise…
Oh Dearly Most Gracious Heavenly Father Where Would I Be If Not For Your Grace!!!!!
When the distance is great, we have to shout that much louder to be heard.
• • •
The exclamation point was absent from most standard manual typewriters before the 1970s.
In related news, the first network e-mail was sent in 1971.
This confluence of events has made all the difference in the life of Woody Graber.
Graber calls himself "the king of the exclamation point," and if you cover music in Florida, you'd agree he's a royal . . . something. The head of his own PR firm, and a frequent flack for Live Nation, Graber has been in the music biz for more than 25 years. In the 1990s, when PR reps began carpet-bombing the press with e-mails, Graber started looking for a way to stand out from peers.
That's when the subject line of his e-mails became populated with excited little soldiers.
U2 IN TAMPA!!!!!!!!!
IT'S THE 1-800-ASK-GARY AMPHITHEATRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Those, by the way, are the actual number of exclamation points in Graber's e-mails.
Not that he's completely indiscriminate.
"If you're hyping a Dave Matthews show, that's one thing. But a Journey-Foreigner show doesn't create the same excitement. So you need something. Plus with all those exclamation points, you know it's from me."
Other thrilling examples:
COUNTRY THROWDOWN CARPOOL PACKAGE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
CORRECTED JOB FAIR INFO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Graber says the punctuation frenzy has "gotten him more notice." As well it should. The exclamation mark is not a defensive crouch, a wallflower. No, no, no, it is an invitation upstairs.
Look at me.
Listen to me.
• • •
"The exclamation point is the thinking man's emoticon," says Roy Peter Clark, a vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, the journo Valhalla that owns the St. Petersburg Times. "I wouldn't be caught dead putting a smiley face in an e-mail."
Clark has a heightened appreciation for "that little phallic bat and ball." The cover of his new book, Help! for Writers, features a big cartoon exclamation point as a welcoming beacon; section breaks in chapters are two exclamation points butting heads. In his 2010 book The Glamour of Grammar, Clark wrote, "In the land of the emoticon, the exclamation point seems downright weighty, a staff of sturdy stuff."
These days, "any person who sits at a computer to write can control how the text will look on the screen or the printed page," he posits in Grammar, adding, "I suspect that the liberty to influence how the page looks has altered writing in our time." That has given new life to the exclamation point, which was previously exposed "mostly in children's literature and romance novels."
In Grammar, Clark rats out an excitable buddy: "Times have certainly changed. An e-mail I recently received contained a six-word sentence followed by eleven (yes, eleven!) exclamation points. The message, written by a man, challenges the way in which gender distinctions influence the use of punctuation."
When I tell Clark that I'm also a serial pointer, he laughs. "It's a little unmanly to use a lot of exclamation points: You probably don't care about the taste of your light beer, either."
• • •
Allison Barkley watches the skies. She also watches Twitter, tweeting up to 40 times a day. So when NASA was looking for plugged-in people to participate in a "tweetup" for the final shuttle launch this summer, Barkley, a 25-year-old administrative assistant in Tampa, was ideal.
"I was with all of these shuttle enthusiasts," says Barkley, whose Twitter handle is @thatgirlallie. "I'm more into nebulae and the cosmos, so I felt a little weird. But after five days, I learned a lot."
Did she tweet a bunch?
Did you use a lot of exclamation points?
Love her lit up!
Go go go go if I keep tweeting it it will happen go go go!
Launch signals are all green!!!!! Wooohooo
About three thousand people follow Barkley on Twitter, where they admire her for her energy and lack of a filter. Recent everyday tweets include:
I want an old VW bug! Painted like a ladybug!
And Oh hell yes, someone made pumpkin minimuffins!
And I love horses!
It's not so much what she says, but how excitedly she says it.
"Why am I using so many exclamation points? I don't know," she says. "Maybe I want to think I'm excited, but I'm really not. I mean, I notice how bad I am. I know I do it. I'm always like, 'Wow, that last message had 37 exclamation points.' "
But she can't stop. Doesn't want to. She appreciates "good grammar," but sometimes she just wants to let her !!! hang out.
"I heard that anything after three exclamation points is too much," Barkley says. "Four would be too much. But three is fine."
Barkley figures serial pointers are all just "drawing attention to ourselves. We're trying to seem like we're upbeat."
Woody Graber would certainly agree with that.
I would, too.
Punctuation as pulse: The exclamation point is a sign of life.
Besides, Barkley adds, excessive exclamation point use is far better than the alternative.
"You don't want to use all caps. 'Cause that's just wrong."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay). Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report!