Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.