“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark
is like laughing at your own jokes.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I was young, I went through a phase in my writing where I used exclamation marks like they were going out of fashion. (I think most children do – exclamation marks are very tempting when you first encounter them.) The stories and letters that I wrote were full of lines such as “She ran from the monster in sheer terror!!!” or “Isn’t that amazing!!!” or “We had a really great time!!!”. These days, I follow the advice of the now sadly departed American writer Elmore Leonard, who suggested that writers use “no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” When I proof read the manuscript of one of my books, I go through it with a fine tooth comb and remove any exclamation marks that somehow slipped through in the drafting stages. I will usually allow myself one or two in a book of 50,000 words, but that is more than enough. The problem with exclamation marks isn’t that they are inherently bad or anything – they do a very useful job of expressing surprise, joy or amazement in informal day-to-day communication (and in children’s writing). The problem with exclamation marks for the writer, though, is that they are a symptom of lazy writing. If you aren’t confident that your sentence will exclaim through its rhythm, style, meaning, tone or syntax, then you stick an exclamation mark on the end.
At the start of February, the DfE published exemplification materials for the teacher assessment of children’s writing at the end of Key Stages 1 and 2. (I wrote about the madness of the Key Stage 2 assessment requirements here). And now we are in the completely crazy situation where children can only gain credit for being able to use exclamation marks, if they use them in a full sentence, and that sentence starts with ‘what’ or ‘how’. In an article in Schools Week, the spokesperson for the DfE is crystal clear about what is required: “A sentence that takes the form of an exclamation starts with ‘What’ or ‘How’ and uses the syntax of an exclamation.” All I can think of to say to this idiocy is that I am thankful that I am not teaching children in Key Stage 1, because I would have to refuse to lie to the children. No you can’t only use exclamation marks in sentences that start with one of two words (and often they are best used in speech or in a clause, not in a sentence at all). In any case, if you are a child, you can use the damn things whenever you want to exclaim, because that is how children’s writing works. (If you are an adult, and you still want to them use them like that, then jolly good for you.) It’s hard to know what to do in this kind of situation, beyond blogging about how the DfE does not get to say how punctuation works. So I only hope that all the primary head teachers in England refuse to go along with this nonsense, maybe by writing to the DfE to ask: “Say what!?!?!?!?!?!?”.