Ad-Libs by John Foust

Cut Down on Exclamation Points

By John Foust, Raleigh, NC

Lately I have noticed a disturbing trend in print and online advertising: the overuse of exclamation marks. They’re all over the place. Interestingly, no grammar book I have ever seen has suggested using more exclamation marks – or exclamation points – as some people call them. All the guides say they should be limited.

Maybe some ad writers are pulled into the abyss by overly zealous advertisers who think of their businesses in terms of superlatives. After all, exclamation marks seem to fit with words like “unbelievable,” “fantastic” and “incredible.”

Not long ago, I saw a half-page, four-color ad for a home remodeling company. Of the 18 phrases and sentences in the ad, 14 of them ended with exclamation marks. That had to be some kind of record.

Of course, a well-placed exclamation mark is legitimate punctuation. But like your favorite dessert, it’s not smart to have too much at one sitting – especially when it comes to advertising. In my opinion, emails and texts are in a different category. In those informal environments, it makes sense to add exclamation marks to phrases like “Congratulations,” “Well done,” and “Wow.” (Or for Shakespeare types, “Hark!”)

If your advertisers are addicted to exclamation marks, here are some points to consider:

  1. The excitement should come from the message, not from the punctuation. Here are some bullet-point features from a description of a winter parka. Watch what happens when we add exclamation points: “Down insulation provides additional warmth! Polyester shell resists wind and rain! Adjustable insulated hood! Internal pocket with zipper! Elastic cuffs! Available in six colors! Machine wash and dry!”

Do the exclamation marks add anything to the message? No. In fact, they distract readers by breaking the flow of the copy. And along the way, they cause the advertiser’s credibility to decline a notch or two.

After all, can everything about that parka be that dramatic? Can everything be worth shouting? Probably not.

  1. Exclamation marks can create confusion. An exclamation mark often looks like an additional typographical character that has been tacked to the end of a word or number. Remember, we read at a glance. An exclamation mark can look like a lower-case “l” at the end of a word and as a number “1” at the end of a number. An “!” can make $39 look like $391. In worst-case situations, advertisers who use multiple exclamation marks risk making items that sell for a few dollars look like they cost thousands. That kind of typographic mischief doesn’t send a clear message to readers.
  2. Overuse of exclamation marks can be the sign of an amateur. Like superlatives, exclamation marks can be poor substitutes for strong, compelling language.

Do a little research. Take a look at national ads. Read through professionally written articles in newspapers, magazines and web sites. They use few – or no – exclamation marks.

This is not to say that exclamation marks should be banned completely. I just think we should be more careful with them.

(c) Copyright 2021 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information: [email protected]