Rob Walker | Essays

Let’s Make A Mark

In a recent interview over our dining room table, Ellen Susan revealed, exclusively to me, her latest epiphany: The obvious need for a new punctuation mark.

The underlying problem is of course overuse of the traditional exclamation mark in the email/social network era, to the extent that the meaning of this venerable symbol has been severely undermined. I can recall coming across advice when I was in college in the late 1980s suggesting that it was permissible to use an exclamation mark once every twenty years or so. Today I probably type one every twenty minutes. I’m not doing so in published work, naturally, but rather in email: “Thanks!” “Congrats!” “See you soon!” It’s not just me. Even as I was writing this paragraph, I got a  note from a highly erudite editor of a widely respected literary/cultural journal: “You are too kind!”

I actually hadn’t been kind to any excitable-making extent in the missive he was responding to. But we both knew that. Consider a non-exclamation-point version of my correspondent’s message: “You are too kind.” That reads dry, chilly, possibly even sarcastic. Which suggests how the function of the exclamation mark has changed: It no longer connotes remarkable enthusiasm; it just signals a sort of general friendliness and baseline cheer, the equivalent of saying “Howyadoin?” in a chipper voice.

This is precisely why, as Ellen argues, we need a new punctuation mark that resides in the emotional range between the just-the-facts period and the whoop-to-do excitability of the exclamation point. While the new mark would clearly signal positivity, it would save us from communicating with the unhinged emotionality of a note slipped between junior-high students.


An ElRey Mark, by Ellen Susan

So having spotted this need, Ellen promptly designed a new mark herself. She calls her proposed solution an ElRey Mark. This refers to the name of our former dog, a highly dignified chow who was a master at communicating feeling with graceful understatement. Using the Spanish words for “the king” also suggests that an ElRey connotes comfortable mastery of protocol and politesse, intertwined with a steadfast refusal to raise one’s voice unless something is on fire. Visually, it borrows the Spanish-language double-deployment of ¡exclamation! marks, but combines the two symbols to suggest roughly half the level of exclaiming: precisely the new measurement we need.

ElRey Mark usage, rendered in Hoefler Text

The most difficult aspect of E’s suggestion — creating an entirely new mark that would have to be adapted into every font in existence and every keyboard hereinafter devised — is also my favorite aspect. There are endless of examples of small-bore meaning-hacks applied to existing characters in the digital-writing era: @, #, emoticons in general, etc. But surely the massive underlying shift in textual communication that we’ve lately experienced deserves to be memorialized in some more definitive way than those examples. And I can’t think of a more genuinely useful addition to the way we punctuate now than the ElRey. I wish I could use one to end this sentence, but I can’t — yet!

Posted in: Typography

Comments [20]

While communicating my enthusiasm for this post on Facebook, I realized that an interim solution is needed between now and the inevitable moment when the mark is embraced by official channels. So I came up with an ascii version of the ElRey. It is .–.

Let unbridled semi-enthusiastic communication begin .–.
Ellen Susan

Love the idea.-.

And very neatly designed: love the tapering nature of the mark in the middle, Please let it catch on.-.

Might line up better this way •–•
[bullet n-dash bullet]
Unless you feel that the bullets make too bold of a punctuation mark for the more half-hearted enthusiasm you seek to express...

Worth considering Beach, and I like keeping my finger on the option key throughout, but I am struggling with the enthusiasm issue. Thanks for the suggestion
Ellen Susan

I think the ! is still valid, as it seems to communicate a certain amount of sincerity while the # mark in twitter seems to be slightly sarcastic.
Maybe the new mark can mean sincerity without the energy.
Mike Lowe

Interpunct and en dash to the resque ·–·
Frode Bo Helland

In the interim would it not perhaps be simpler to use the vertical bar?
Like this|

I really like the idea behind this new mark, but the form of the mark seems out of place and doesn't seem grounded to the line of text. I think it is strange to have a mark comprised of three parts. Maybe the solution resides somewhere between a "?" and a "!."
Scott Raney

Scott Raney, there is the interrobang.
I'd prefer to see the interrobang added to the regular keyboard; I find the need to express incredulity far more often than I have the need to express friendliness.

> In the interim would it not perhaps be simpler to use the vertical bar?
Like this|

I think the broken bar ¦ might be more distinguishable and apt.

By the way, does anyone know why, at least on UK QWERTY keyboards, the ¦ and | give each others' symbols? I'll give that a quick google....

You are too kind “!”

Tail wagging anyone?
Perhaps we should try a little Banana Joe tail wagging by moving our quote marks around the exclamation point.
Banana Joe “!”
Carl W. Smith

I never knew about the "interpunct" ·–·
Good one. I think that wins the sideways contenders, hands down.

Regarding the interrobang, it appears that you can paste that one: ‽
(even if you can't type it) also... "On Mac OS X, it is found on the Character Palette, obtained by pressing the key combination ⌘ Cmd+⌥ Opt+T."

Already a character for this:




"Already a character for this:

I find it a little difficult to realize it's a punctuation mark when it's used in a sentenceị

Italo Alves

What about something that looks like a muted exclamation mark?

Something like this.

Or this.|.

Or maybe just this.|

Perhaps we are trying to create the wrong character? It's fair to say that because of the now ubiquitous employment of the exclamation point, it's changed the meaning. So, instead of creating a new character for what we're all already doing, do we need to create a new mark for what the exclamation point used to mean?

That said, perhaps we can borrow from Spanish and use the two exclamation points, but in adjacent fashion. Like this:


Or perhaps something that borrows from math, and denotes that it's an exclamation to a higher power:

John Mindiola III

Wow, what a great set of responses. Clearly this is a problem that needs solving.

Regarding the interobang: I had completely forgotten about that, but I do love the name.

Anyway, love all the back and forth here. Thanks all ... rw
Rob Walker

Also: There are quite a few comments in a post about this at Boing Boing, some very interesting. For those interested:
Rob Walker

Personally, I'm a fan of the anime smiley. ^^

What‽ (haha)

There's also the option of allowing text-speak to exist as its own, self-evolving language, and accept the ! as the demarcation of friendliness that it's become. After all, the way I've come to truly designate exclamation is with all-caps, repetition of letters, and ironic misspelling; i.e., OMGGGG LOLOLOLOLOL YISSS.

I'd like to see the editor of a lit journal use one of those. Hehe.

Of course, that also brings up the question/concern (‽) of continued escalation, and an imagined future where OMG and LOL are the designators of friendliness, and true exclamation is just calling someone on facetime and screaming bloody murder...

Jobs | July 19