I've been editing and working with college-aged writers of both genders for the past three years, and there's nothing I hate more than the overuse of exclamation points.
Yes, passive voice is annoying, misused semicolons can be disrupting, and improper use of contractions makes me roll my eyes, but the abuse of the exclamation point is the most egregious of the common errors that I see in young writers.
The Chicago Manual of Style advises writers to "use it sparingly," and many professional writers would advise you to avoid it completely except in personal communications like emails or text messages. Unfortunately, this lesson seems to be getting lost on our young writers, and in my experience, especially on the women.
Do women use too many exclamation points in their writing?
Before you get mad because I made a generalization based on gender, I should say that there is a wealth of data available to back up my hypothesis. I am not the only curious editor who has wondered about this, so let me introduce you to several studies that back up my theory.
Scates proves that college women use exclamation points more often than men:
First, in 1981 Carol Scates - inspired by a previous study by Mary Hiatt in 1977 - launched a study to determine the writing styles of first year college students, and how they differed by gender. Now, Hiatt's study had found that in published literary works, women actually used fewer exclamation points than men, but Scates' study that singled out first year college students, yielded dramatically different results. The young women in Scates' study were found to be much more likely to use exclamation points, suggesting that maybe the trend isn't true across the board, but rather limited to younger, less experienced writers.
Women also use the exclamation point more often in personal settings:
Another paper - published by Laura Winn and Donald Rubin in 2001 - gives more weight to my theory that less experienced female writers tend to use more exclamation points than male writers. Winn and Rubin's study looked at the use of exclamation points in personal ads as a measure of excitability. They found that women used exclamation points three times more often than men, and since the study's participants were not professional writers, I think this pretty much proves that my observation wasn't inaccurate.
So, why do they do it?
Now the tricky part. Why do inexperienced writers who are also women tend to overuse the exclamation point?
One 2006 study looked at message boards on the internet to examine the context of exclamation point use. This study by Carol Waseleski found that, once again, women are more likely to use exclamation points, but it added an important observation: that women tend to use these exclamation points largely when stating facts. For example, statements like "There's still time to register!", "Computers had an important impact in libraries before 1970!", and "That makes us kindred souls!" are mentioned in the study.
To the crowd we go:
I wanted to do a little unscientific digging into this issue as well, especially since my position at Uloop affords me plenty of contacts who happen to be young, female, and aspiring writers. Here's what I posted out to Facebook a few weeks ago:
"Why is it that so many young female writers insist on using an exclamation point after every two sentences?
I'm not saying that all of them do - I know plenty of great woman writers who don't - but why is this so common? Did they go to a different English class than the young male writers did?"
Some of the responses were just silly, but I did get a few good thoughts out of it:
"I think women often don't feel heard. It's a way to add emphasis and force attention, for people who don't understand how to do that through craft. " - Meghan Callahan
"I think it's because we grew up doodling flowers, hearts, rainbows and pretty smiley faces, etc....I don't know if that's the answer, but I do definitely think it has to do with getting attention as well. - Andrea Stockard
"I'm guilty of this, and I'm not sure why I do it. When I think I've made an important point I put one..." - Kayla Burson
Meghan's answer would seem to corroborate the results of Waseleski's study in 2006. Women may be subconsciously fighting an assumption by society that their research isn't valid, that they aren't as smart, or that they're not writing about anything important. If young women do feel that their voices aren't being heard, this would give them justification for leaning on more forceful punctuation.
So, what do you think? Are you guilty of overusing the exclamation point? Do you ever think about why? Let me know in the comments below, and you should know that you're not alone. Elaine Benes overused her exclamation points too: