Lately, I’ve noticed that the exclamation point is in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. I tend to see him as the Party Boy of punctuation. He stands tall and proud on the balls of his feet, never tiring of a good celebration. He wears his excitement on his sleeve–ready for fun! at a moments notice. He’s always been reliable that way, with the exception of a few minor forays into surprise! or exasperation! But those moments are usually reserved for dialogue. He rarely, if never gets invited to a journalism gig. And the few times I saw him at a text or e-mail event, he was overdressed and incoherent (apparently all that excitement had gone to his head).

As an English major, I count on punctuation to guide my emotions through whatever it is I’m reading. Sentences with very little punctuation are clearly depressed or Russian or Irish. Ones with too much punctuation not only make me dizzy, they lower my expectations. And those with just the right mix of ! ? ; , …make me proud and happy. 

This identity crisis started happening when e-mail became the preferred method of communication by workers, friends, and family everywhere. Most things having to do with the written language, as we know it, all changed with the proliferation of e-mailspeak only to be further maligned by the introduction of textspeak. The formats lend themselves to lower-case, unpunctuated, rambling gobbledyspeak. Did you ever try sending an e-mail with a perfectly coherent, accurately punctuated sentence? It completely freaks out, taunting a normally rational writer into doubting herself or is it to doubt herself? Worse, how about that text you sent only to discover upon receipt of the reply that you want your friend to buy the hose on the burner. She is so confused. So who can blame Party Boy for his recent indiscretions?

I recently saw him at an event for a work friend’s father. He was in a Hallmark condolence card, clearly uninvited (or so I thought). My co-workers were expressing sympathy for a cohort’s recently deceased father, then bam, there he was: “Sorry to hear about the loss of your father!”

How truly inappropriate and insensitive, I thought. This is no time for celebration and joy, for fun and joviality. A period would have been so much more respectful and dignified. Understatement has always been the preferred form of expressing sympathy to the grieving. Right? For a moment I began to doubt myself, again. Could I be wrong? Have the social conventions for grief changed since the last time I was at a funeral? Do we no longer express sympathy for fear that we may offend the living? 

Yes, apparently so. The woman whose father had died had e-mailed everyone. (It’s now acceptable to e-mail everyone at once rather than personally thank them for their outpouring of support) and there was Party Boy again, this time, invited: “I would like to thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers!” Whoa.

Is it only me, or do you also imagine the way this would sound aloud? I see it as a skit on Saturday Night Live. Kate McKinnin’s character is incapable of understanding emotion in its proper context, she blurts out various inappropriate ways of describing things to others and then she turns to the camera, stage left, the lights dim in a halo around her head cueing the audience that there is something very serious she must tell us, then she screeches in delight: “Guess what? I’ve got cancer and I’m going to die!”

Party on, dude.