What is an exclamation point?
An exclamation point or exclamation mark ( ! ) is a punctuation mark commonly used to express strong, intense emotions in declarations. It can also be used to add emphasis to interjections and commands.
Ending exclamatory sentences
Exclamation points are most often used in place of periods to end declarative sentences that express a very strong emotion, such as anger, excitement, surprise, or disgust. These are sometimes referred to as exclamatory sentences. For example:
- “I can’t wait to travel to Paris next week!”
- “I can’t believe I got into law school!”
- “We are all so excited for your visit!”
- “I’m so sick of all the negativity in this office!”
An interjection, also known as an exclamation, is a word, phrase, or sound used to convey an emotion such as surprise, excitement, happiness, or anger. Interjections are grammatically unrelated to any other part of a sentence. Because they are able to stand alone as minor sentences, they can be punctuated with a period, an exclamation point, or a question mark.
We use an exclamation point when the emotion we want to convey is very strong and is not a question. Interjections are usually followed (or occasionally preceded) by an exclamatory sentence. For example:
- “Hooray! I got accepted to my top choice university!”
- “Yuck! I hate coconuts!”
- “That was an impressive victory! Congratulations!”
Adding emphasis to imperative sentences
Imperative sentences are direct commands or requests. They are formed by using the base form of a verb (the infinitive without the particle to) and omitting the subject of the sentence (it is implied). For example:
- “Please finish all of your vegetables.”
- “Have that report finished by 5 o’clock.”
- “Just drop me off in front of the school.”
We often use exclamation points to intensify a command, generally to indicate anger, exasperation, or urgency. For example:
- “Please don’t stay out too late tonight!”
- “Get out of here, now!”
- “Go to your room this instant!”
While exclamation points most commonly end exclamatory sentences, we can also use them to emphasize particular words or phrases within a sentence. Generally speaking, there are two ways this can be done.
Putting exclamation points in parentheses
If we want to draw attention to a certain word or phrase as being exciting, surprising, upsetting, or otherwise noteworthy, we can put an exclamation point in parentheses immediately after the word being emphasized. For example:
- “It was nearly 4 AM (!) before we left the office.” (The time at which the speaker left is astonishing and/or upsetting.)
- “So far he has won 10 (!) Olympic gold medals throughout his career.” (The amount of medals he won is remarkable.)
- “I think I’m getting a car (!) for my birthday.” (It is very exciting and unexpected to be getting a car.)
- “According to the bank, the account was under my mother’s name (!) this whole time!” (It is astonishing that the bank account is under the mother’s name.)
While using an exclamation point in this way is sometimes useful in conversational writing, it is best not to use it very often as it can result in a cluttered sentence that is hard to read, and it should generally be avoided altogether in formal, professional, or academic writing.
Using exclamation points with onomatopoeias
When we use onomatopoeias (words that phonetically imitate particular sounds), we can emphasize the intensity of the sound by putting an exclamation point immediately after it. (It is also common practice to put such words in italics.) This does not end the sentence, so the word following the onomatopoeia will not be capitalized. Also note that if a comma is used after the onomatopoeia, it will come after the exclamation point. For example:
- “With a great whirr!, the machine started and began lighting up.”
- “The cat let out an angry meow! before running out through the open door.”
- “Creak! went the rusty old gate as we pushed our way into the yard.”
Using exclamation points with other punctuation
With periods (full stops)
An exclamation point replaces a period when it ends a sentence. However, if a period is used to mark an abbreviation that appears at the end of an exclamatory sentence, we put the exclamation point outside (to the right of) the period, with no space between them. For example:
- “I can’t believe your grandfather worked with Martin Luther King, Jr.!”
- “We’re going on vacation until the end of Aug.!”
With quotation marks
We use quotation marks to indicate the exact words used by someone else. This is known as direct speech or direct quotation.
When the quoted text is itself a complete exclamatory sentence, the exclamation point will appear within the quotation marks, as in:
- He exclaimed, “I’ve never stolen anything in my entire life!”
- “Oh, give me a break!” she shouted angrily.
However, if the quoted text is a part of a larger exclamatory sentence, then the exclamation point will fall outside of the quotation marks. For instance:
- I can’t believe he seriously wants to “join the circus”!
- Don’t tell me to “calm down”!
With question marks
In informal writing, we sometimes use a question mark with an exclamation point to emphasize surprise or excitement about the question we are asking. Generally speaking, the exclamation point comes after the question mark. If the writer wants to add even more emphasis, the question mark/exclamation point combination can also be repeated. For example:
- “What did you say to him?!”
- “You won the lottery?!?!”
However, this construction is very informal, and it should be reserved for casual communication between friends—do not use an exclamation point after a question mark in formal, professional, or academic writing. If you are asking a question, no matter how excited or emphatic, simply use a question mark on its own.
Multiple exclamation points
Similar to using an exclamation point with a question mark to add emphasis to a question, it is also common in informal, conversational writing to use multiple exclamation points to add extra intensity to an exclamatory sentence. Generally speaking, the more exclamation points used, the greater the intensity of the sentence. For example:
- “My mom screamed, ‘Go to your room this instant!!’”
- “I can’t believe I failed my test again!!!”
- “Jack, we won the lottery!!!!”
Again, this is a very informal practice, and it should be avoided in any writing other than casual communication.
With italicized and underlined text
You may have noticed when we discussed emphasizing onomatopoeias that the exclamation points in those examples were also italicized. However, we do not always apply the same formatting to an exclamation point as the word(s) it follows.
If the exclamation point is a part of the formatted text, it should be formatted the same way. This is especially relevant to italics, which are often used to distinguish the titles of bodies of work, such as books, films, or music albums. (Underlining is also used this way, though it is much more common in handwriting than in print.) If the title contains an exclamation point, it should appear with the same formatting as the rest of the title. For example:
- “One of my favorite books to read as a child was How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
- “We’re studying Absalom, Absalom! in my literature class.”
(Notice that we use the exclamation point as the final punctuation if the title appears at the end of the sentence, even if the sentence wouldn’t otherwise be exclamatory.)
However, if the formatted text is a part of a larger exclamatory sentence, we must be sure not to format the exclamation point if it is not a part of the title, as in:
- “I can’t wait until the first time my daughter reads The Wind in the Willows!”
- “I absolutely love the TV show The Office!”
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