The Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark (!), known informally as a bang or a shriek, is used at the end of a sentence or a short phrase which expresses very strong feeling. Here are some examples:

What a lovely view you have here!
That's fantastic!
Johnny, don't touch that!
Good heavens!

Examples like these are quite normal in those kinds of writing that try to represent ordinary speech — for example, in novels. But exclamation marks are usually out of place in formal writing. Using them frequently will give your work a breathless, almost childish, quality.

An exclamation mark is also usual after an exclamation beginning with what or how:

What fools people can be!
How well Marshall bowled yesterday!

Note that such sentences are exclamations, and not statements. Compare them with statements:

People can be such fools.
Marshall bowled very well yesterday.

You can also use an exclamation mark to show that a statement is very surprising:

After months of careful work, the scientists finally opened the tomb. It was empty!

It is also permissible to use an exclamation mark to draw attention to an interruption:

On the (rare!) occasion when you use a Latin abbreviation, be sure to punctuate it properly.

Otherwise, you should generally avoid using exclamation marks in your formal writing. Don't write things like this:

*Do not use exclamation marks in formal writing!
*In 1848, gold was discovered in California!

Don't use an exclamation mark unless you're certain it's necessary — and never use two or three of them in a row:

*This is a sensational result!!!

This sort of thing is all right in personal letters, but it is completely out of place in formal writing.

Summary of exclamation marks:

  • Don't use an exclamation mark unless it's absolutely necessary.
  • Use an exclamation mark after an exclamation, especially after one beginning with what or how.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex