Wednesday, 13 February 2013


I'm not the only one, it seems, to be suffering from involuntary textual ejaculation. A while ago Mitchell and Webb dramatised a conversation I actually had with more than one person:

and since then I've found myself using 'x' simply to close text messages rather than to convey romantic passion. Then it spread to emails. No doubt soon I'll end conversations by reciting random letters of the alphabet in case my interlocutor is hurt by the omission of some semiotic of which I'm unaware. Though you won't find me saying '#' to signpost sarcasm.

But it's not just the dreaded X marking an emotional spot. It's the ! that's creeping into every electronic sentence. As you know, I get paid for reading and talking about books. I'm good at spotting what the post-structuralists call 'deferral', and the 'trace' and all the other identifiers of the gap between language and meaning. What's that? You think languages communicates meaning? You're so sweet! Language is out of our control. We grope for meaning and never quite get there.

Which brings me to the ubiquitous !. Why is it so prevalent in electronic media, rather than paper? Perhaps it was always there in informal letters, notes and graffiti, just absent in formal communications. Check your teenage diary. For me, it marks the awareness that as writers we're all aware of the gaping chasm of language. We don't trust it to convey – in particular – tone of voice or register. The exclamation mark is made to bear so much. For instance, I find myself over-using it in emails to students. If I thank them for some information, I won't write 'thanks.' It looks cold and flat. So I write 'thanks!' which seems friendlier and more enthusiastic. Then I wonder whether I or we always worried about this gap. After that I wonder whether the ! is a bit creepily over-friendly, 'too cool for school'. I'm 37. I shouldn't need to add !'s to look like somebody's mate, or in the immortal words of David Brent, 'basically a chilled-out entertainer'.

Or am I over-worrying like a sad old man. After all, some of my very respectable friends think it's socially acceptable to add emoticons and smiley-face symbols to text messages and emails, as though they've outsourced the typing – and possible mental process – to a 12 year old who lives on Sherbert Fountains and Coke. Management haven't got that far yet, but it's coming. Perhaps I'll reduce marking to !s and smileys to distinguish between Genius and Plagiarist.

Anyway, I'm not the only one feeling the semiotic gap: here's one suggestion for a punctuation mark which expresses mild pleasure or surprise without going for the nuclear option of the full-on exclamation mark:
All I can say to that is OMG WTF LOL:))

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm currently teaching my pupils how to write letters in English. Even though I find myself using the '!' quite a bit as well, you will not believe how many of them my pupils manage to squeeze into one letter of 150-200 words. It is ridiculous. When I addressed this in class, they all went: 'Yes, but, Ma'am, it will sound so boring when you read it'. Or 'like you don't really mean it'. The last argument makes an interesting point. Apparently my pupils (and I'm suspecting many more) thinks 'Thanks!!!' is more sincere and heartfelt than 'I would like to express my gratitude by saying wholeheartedly thank you.'