SUMMARY: Using exclamation marks

Subject: SUMMARY: Using exclamation marks
From: "Carnall, Jane" <Jane -dot- Carnall -at- compaq -dot- com>
To: "'TECHWR-L'" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 17 Nov 1999 17:16:18 -0000

Last week I asked (12 Nov): What do techwhirlers think of exclamation marks?

>>When composing the message for an indicator box on a diagram, at first I
put: Look! Execution successfully completed!
>>but then I wondered if it looked too enthusiastic, too... ungrey... too...
unprofessional... perhaps even condescending... (Also, it was late on a
Friday evening and I wondered if I were just getting silly: the impulse to
add a little animated ferret in honour of AskTog's prairie dog *was*
definitely silly, and I suppressed it like a guinea-pig in Wonderland.)
>>So I entered instead the bland but accurate: Execution successfully
>> which, with the outlined box and the arrow drew attention to the message,
which is what I was originally asked for.
>> So, my question for the week was: What would you have done? Exclamation
marks? Dancing ferrets?

There was a consensus! Everyone was (pretty much) against using exclamation
marks in technical documentation.

If you use them at all, you should definitely avoid anything even slightly
approaching overuse: and you should never ever use them when the message is
negative. (Example: You did that right! may come across as friendly, if a
tad excited, whereas: You did that wrong! is smug.)

Further, possibly useful info:

What the British call exclamation marks, the Americans call exclamation

In the 1960s a designer tried to introduce what he called an interrobang--a
combination glyph [...] to be used at the end of those rhetorical-question
exclamations like "how rude was that[interrobang]" How weird is that?!

Thanks to all. Unsummarised answers below,

Jane Carnall
Technical Writer, Compaq, UK
Unless stated otherwise, these opinions are mine, and mine alone.

I got the following replies:

"Definitely dancing ferrets."

"I included an exclamation point in part of my documentation, but it looks
cheesy to me. I thought it seemed friendly, but it's making me wince so I'm
going to take it out. "

"As far as using exclamation points, I can honestly say this: I've never,
ever been excited enough about *anything* in documentation to warrant using
an exclamation point. Heck, it's tough to justify them even in social
writing. Perhaps I'm just too repressed. Regardless, whenever the
temptation to use an exclamation point hits me or those around me, reading
the sentence out loud, as punctuated, is usually enough to kill the urge.
[....] Generally, I've found that standard callouts are sufficient to
highlight information in a graphic. Another alternative is to dim
everything *else* in the graphic (overwrite it all with a 20% gray, for
example), leaving
only the important stuff in the clear. On screen, of course, color is useful
along with your graphical solution, such as a heavy yellow (or, if
dangerous, red) circle drawn around the
vital piece of info."

"You're right! Why?! Because exclamation marks are addictive!! Once you
let them into your writing, any sentence without at least one exclamation
mark will look wimpish!!! Then what will you do if you REALLY want to
EMPHASIZE something ?? !! ?"

"Consider, too, how excited your 'speaker'--in this case the
application--should be about the message. On one of my computers, every time
I boot up I get a message from my BIOS saying something like, '<brandname>
<version> BIOS successfully loaded!' I always find it rather disturbing that
it is so surprised at its own success. ;-)"

And, for real world feedback:

"My company just switched to WebShadow, a time and resource tracking
package. ALL of its pop up messages (errors, confirmations, etc.) are
followed by exclamation points. "Select a specific date for entry!" "This
record has been locked! No changes can be made!" By the time I'm done
entering my time, I feel like I've been yelled at for 20 minutes straight.
Not real relaxing. I sure wish whoever wrote the interface had been
following this thread. :)"

"I agree 100%. I use a database within which all of the error message are
followed by exclamation marks. I find it really insulting. It is as if the
machine is saying 'Don't do that idiot!' "

"I just edited an online course that includes a number of multiple-choice
quizzes. After a student takes and submits a quiz, the program displays a
results page. I suggested that while "<B> is Correct!" might be nicely
encouraging (though too enthusiastic for my taste), "<C> is Incorrect!" is
probably rubbing it in a bit. Sounds like the program is gloating."


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