Monday, June 22, 2015

Can We Give the Exclamation Point a Rest?

     Young Author's Camps are well under way. It's Sunday night, and I am anticipating tomorrow's new group of writers. To (sort of) quote Forrest Gump, "Writing campers are like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you are going to get."

    If this camp is true to form, it will be a Whitman's Sampler of writers. Kids whose parents think I am running a remedial writing boot camp despite the Parks' Department naming the program "Writing is Fun!"  (Remember that exclamation point.)  Learning disabled kids.  Kids who are there because their parents need a place to park them for the week...and mine was the only camp that still had openings. (Always flattering to hear, "You're all that was left.") And of course, there are usually some kids who there because they love to write. Usually. Not always.

   For the last several years, every session has had a core of writers for whom English is a second language. No one can put together a perfect English sentence the way a 10-year-old who learned the language in school can. Their subjects and verbs agree, something that seems "optional" to a number of "English only" kids. Tenses don't leap from past to present to future in the same sentence.  Punctuation is meticulous. Speaking of punctuation, these ESOL kids have learned the Power of the Punctuation Point.

    A lot of kids let the exclamation point do all the heavy lifting in a sentence.  Rather than show the reader fear, joy, surprise (fill in the emotion here), they toss big handfuls of exclamation points instead.  A paragraph of five sentences will include six exclamation points. (More is better, right?) After awhile those little points seem to rise off the page in platoons, stabbing at my eyeballs. A slight exaggeration, but after awhile all you see on the page is !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Example:  I was so sad when we moved!  I left all my friends behind!  I didn't know anybody at school!  I hated school! I was always in a bad mood!  Even my dog was in a bad mood!!!!

    Why are these kids so dependent on the point?  My first thought is to blame texting and email which has shrunk language down to emoticons and acronyms (OMG, LOL, 😄).  But most of my students are not allowed on social media, or have email accounts. Back in the day, teachers blamed comic books for sloppy punctuation (Pow! Biff! Bam!  Take that, Batman!).  I haven't run across any of comic fans among my writers.  Video games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, yes.  Comic books, no.

     There are a handful of chapter book writers who go over the top with the punctuation points for comic effect. I'm not laughing, but the kids are.  Still, even those writers do it a couple of times per book at most, not every sentence.

    It comes back to something I've posted about before...vocabulary.  For my young writers, it is easier to use my two pet peeves, the word "very" combined with an adjective and an exclamation point.  In revision of their work, I encourage them to find another way of expressing the emotion without using "very."

   Example:  The test was very hard!

  Alternatives:  The test was: challenging complicated confusing demanding difficult exhausting puzzling tiring unclear. (Pick one.)

  Each of the alternatives offers a clearer picture of how or why the test was "hard."  Was it physically
hard?  Did your head ache?  Did you write so much your hand hurt?  Or was it hard to understand?  Were the directions unclear?  Did you mix-up your facts?  Or were the questions more difficult than you expected?  Or did it just make you think harder?  "Hard" can mean a lot of things in describing a test.  What exactly did you mean?

    At this point I bring out my trusty thesaurus collection: beginners, intermediate and Roget's.  My students are familiar with the thesaurus...the one on their word processing program.  I compare the meager selection offered by the computer program to the many, many options in the thesaurus. They learn they cannot slide by with what I call "wimp words"...words too general to say what they mean. The substitutions for wimp words are in the thesaurus.  By the end of the week, they have almost eliminated phrases such as very beautiful, very hot, very boring. Instead, flowers are exquisite, days swelter and TV shows uninteresting.

    Once the "enabler" word "very" disappears, the punctuation marks often disappear as well.  At least they do in descriptive passages.  They still seem to show up in dialog.  How else do you show some one is excited?  Example:  "It's raining!" she said excitedly.

   In this case, the culprit is "said." Said is a perfectly good word.  It's meant to be unobtrusive in dialog.  Sometimes, however, you want to know how that sentence is...well...said. How could you show the speaker is excited without that pesky exclamation point?  Swap said for one of the following verbs:  screamed, shouted, yelled, exclaimed, moaned, groaned, cried, wailed, howled, wailed, gasped, choked,shrieked, rejoiced, squealed, cheered, announced.

   If after all those choices the writer still can't let go of that exclamation point, I issue an ultimatum. Two exclamation points for the whole piece.  More than two, I tell the student, "Imagine that I control  the world supply of exclamation points.  If you wan to use on, they are now a hundred dollars apiece."  The silliness of the notion usually makes the writer think twice about using them.

    Again, in the words of Forrest Gump..."And that's all I have to say about that."

    No exclamation point.


    Today is the last time to register for our give away of JoAnn Early Macken's board book, BABY SAYS MOO.  For details, see JoAnn's June 12 post.

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman



Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Excellent post.


Carmela Martino said...

>> If this camp is true to form, it will be a Whitman's Sampler of writers<<
Yep, that's what my camps are like, too, MA. Hope you have a great one!
Couldn't resist the !, even though I plan to use your "no more than 2 per piece" rule.

April Halprin Wayland said...

OMG, Mary Ann ~ Fabulous!

I'm definitely going to refer my adult students to this post.

I am feeling very (um...nix that word) self-conscious about my punctuation marking of this comment.


($100 each, eh? I still have one more I can use...)

mary ann rodman said...

April, Carmela, Carla....don't apologize for the good old exclamation point in things like blog responses and FB postings and the like. I am seriously guilty of doing the same thing. That's a different kind of writing where the marks are emotional shorthand. It's just when my social media style starts bleeding into my "serious" writing that I get annoyed with myself.
This week camp is going to be different. I have two kids who are almost physically unable to use a pencil, they are so used to using computers. They were horrified that there were no computers,and they could not bring their laptops. Sigh

Pat said...

Well said!