So there was I was, thinking about what to discuss in today’s post. I was hanging out on one of my favorite forums and reading through comments on a classified listing for a very expensive guitar somebody had for sale. Almost all the comments had something to say about how lovely, magical and incredible the guitar was, and almost all of them were liberally sprinkled with capitalized words and exclamation marks.
Bingo…or should I say, BINGO!!
When I read over the comments a second time, I found myself wondering whether the writers had actually not been taught how to use capital letters and exclamation marks when they were kids, or had just given in to the dreadful usage that’s arisen because of online communications. Guess it doesn’t really matter, as I don’t think anybody is going to reduce the language’s trend toward devolution any time soon. However, at least in terms of your writing and your understanding of proper usage, I can offer a bit of help.
First of all, let’s deal with capitalization. The rules are simple. You use a capital letter for proper names, like the name of a specific person: Oliver Wendell Holmes. You’ll notice that each word in the name is capitalized because each word is a part of the whole proper name. If the person has a title, you capitalize that also, when it’s used with the name: Lord Bennington-Grubbe. However, if you were talking about the title generically, you wouldn’t capitalize it:
He behaves as if he is the lord of the manor.
You capitalize the names of institutions, specific place names, organizations, and so on. You also routinely capitalize the first letter of the first word in a sentence, or in a complete sentence that you’re quoting within a sentence or paragraph of your own. For example:
He entered the room and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
It’s not unusual to see people using individual words that are completely in capital letters as a way of creating emphasis. Now THAT is a real nuisance…no, really, it is. In academic and business writing, you should always avoid doing this unless you’re quoting directly from a source in which a word is all caps, or you’re using a well-know acronym for the name of a recognized organization, like UNESCO. Don’t use acronyms for less well-known organizations unless you’re certain that your audience is familiar with them. Otherwise, you’ll create confusion.
In the world of online forums, chatting, emails, etc., capitalization has taken on an additional role. It still performs the basic functions I’ve described, or at least it should. Beyond these functions, people have taken to capitalizing whole sentences as a means of increasing emphasis even more — so much so that this particular use is regarded as shouting at the recipient of your message. It’s also considered extremely rude, and if you do it without realizing that others will think you’re “shouting” at them, you’re going to get negative feedback. My suggestion: keep your cool, don’t use caps to shout at someone online, and keep your writing consistent with the basic rules.
The whole issue of creating emphasis and showing emotion in your writing brings me to the use of the exclamation mark (or exclamation point, as it’s often called). This is even simpler. An exclamation point is a signal to a reader that the writer intends to show strong emotion — usually surprise, and sometimes shock or anger — in a sentence. It’s a signal to your reader to read the sentence with greater emphasis, and it works because it contrasts with the inflections normally applied to sentences ending in periods or question marks.
If you’re trying to indicate that sort of emotion in a sentence, you end the sentence with an exclamation mark. One exclamation mark. Not two, and not 17. Using multiple exclamation marks at the end of a sentence doesn’t actually increase the emotion to be expressed. If you use multiple or even single exclamation marks after every sentence or two in something you’re writing, the reader will stop thinking of them as signals to read the emotion into your sentences. The exclamation marks will lose their emotional impact very quickly. Instead, your reader will take them as a signal that you’re a twit who doesn’t know how to write properly. Probably not the response you were hoping to create….
Finally, in academic and business writing, you should use exclamation marks very rarely indeed — probably only in quotations from a source. Your writing in these areas should be driven by content, analysis and logic, rather than emotion, and you’re not going to be telling emotive stories in formal essays, reports or market research studies.
So, that’s about all I’ve got to say for today. Not sure what we’ll talk about next time, but unless you send me questions, I’ll conclude that you’re okay with our brief look at punctuation thus far. Now then, off you go and enjoy the rest of your Sunday…:)