There are more important things than exclamation marks, but I confess I have been much troubled about them recently. No – not them, in fact, just one in particular. In general, let it be said, I disapprove of exclamation marks in written prose except in the most necessary situations. When I use one, as I sometime do, I tend to feel that I have risked descending yet another step towards coarse triviality.
Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t matter. In a blog, for example – for blogs are things of coarse triviality, on the whole (like this one). But in the case in question I was finalising an article – a long one, of nearly 5000 words, for the world’s arguably finest, pretty certainly loftiest, and undoubtedly most expensive, wine magazine, World of Fine Wine. Believe it or not, I had been grappling with this article for a few years, off and on (I seldom find writing easy, but the subject of this one was making it a particularly agonising process); now I was at the stage where it was pretty well done, but I needed to tighten up a rather flabby opening.
A lot of work went into reworking the unsatisfactory opening paragraph and finally I was fairly satisfied. I had shortened the sentences, abandoned some strings of tortured syntax, scrapped a sesquipedalian word or two. It was eventually, after all this effort, starting to look quite spontaneous and fresh.
Then I suddenly had an idea for the start of paragraph two, in the same spirit. It seemed an excellent idea: a sentence of four monosyllabic words. I might as well say that they were: “He got a dog!” It was actually the first time in the whole long article where I was actually totally satisfied with a sentence; I thought it perfect.
Next day, it still seemed the right sentence to have exactly in that place. But that exclamation mark? Would it convey to the reader the whole complex mood I felt it was suggesting? Bathos, pathos, the serious significance of something quite slight….? It was risky, especially as the sentence itself was not exactly a profound one and would probably wrinkle a superior readerly brow or two.
I decided I couldn’t get away with the exclamation mark too. Click. Backspace. Gone. But oh, it reappeared, like a stubborn stain, and again I wrestled and pondered, and took it out and put it back. And again. And then it was time to send of the article to the marvellous editor of WFW, Neil Beckett. The last thing I did, after a quick spellcheck, was to delete the exclamation mark.
That was a week ago. Today I wrote to Neil, apologetically (for he’s a very busy man and I don’t like disturbing him, especially as he’s so courteous he would never let me feel a nuisance), and I told him the story of the exclamation mark, and that I’d been having second thoughts (hundredth thoughts) about it, and was wondering if it should be reinstated. But in fact I’ve made my final move in this matter: I asked Neil to decide for me. He’s not to discuss it with me, or even let me know what he does, but as he subs my text, he’s to either put it in or leave it out; when I get a copy of the journal delivered in September (the South African post office being willing, which is always a matter of chance), I’ll see what he decided. Whew! (One is obliged to have an exclamation mark after “whew” – no doubts there.)
As I was writing to Neil, I suddenly remembered the well-known story of Oscar Wilde’s comma. In a well-attested version of the story it goes like this: Oscar was asked at luncheon by a Philistine guest how he had been passing the morning.
“Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.” The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.
“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.” “Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?” Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.” This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.
Should you have followed me this far, with a trace of residual interest in how some writers (the great and the irredeemably minor) grapple with punctuation, I can forward you the address of a website reporting on serious investigation into the authenticity of the Oscar story: here. To the truth of mine, I can the more fervently attest as it’s now a thing of the blissful past, and I can sleep peacefully tonight, having renounced the right to make a decision on the matter. I have. I really have, I think.