Pondering Punctuation: Exclamation Points and Question Marks

It's all about tone of voice.

About a week ago, just as some of the coronavirus restrictions began to loosen up here in Florida, my husband and I welcomed a new member of the family:

Cutest closeup ever

This is Maddie the Labrador Retriever, who is now ten weeks old, and a real sweetie! My husband and I haven’t had dogs for a while since we’d been moving around, but we’ve trained many puppies over the years. One part of it that came right back to me was how much your tone of voice matters: “Come!” should always be happy and enthusiastic; “No!” always needs to be very emphatic and serious.  

So it seems fitting to continue our punctuation survey this time around with two marks that, in addition to being straightforward and easy to use, are important in conveying the writer’s intended tone of his or her words: exclamation points and question marks.

We’re all familiar with both of them. When we were learning to write as children, we probably learned them right after the period; it’s easy to grasp the idea of a marking to convey tone of voice. I’ve always been fascinated with the convention in Spanish, where, in addition to an exclamation point or question mark at the end of the sentence, there’s also an upside-down one at the beginning, so the reader knows right away how the sentence should be read. (By the way, does anyone know if any other languages do that? Just my linguistic curiosity.)

Anyway, let’s start with the exclamation point. Its name tells you exactly how to use it: to mark an exclamation—any kind of utterance that is loaded with strong emotion:

Our new puppy is so cute!

I can’t believe all the toys available for dogs these days!

Just one word of caution when it comes to exclamation points: there has been a growing tendency in the digital age to overuse them, thus robbing them of their punch. It’s an easy habit to fall into—but at least in more formal writing, it’s best to use exclamation points sparingly.

The name of the question mark also speaks for itself: it’s used to indicate a direct question:

Do you like dogs?

How much should I feed my puppy?

You can even use a question mark in the middle of a sentence when embedding a direct question—that is, if the question is in the same form as when it was originally asked. The remainder of the sentence doesn’t need a capital letter:

Is it a good time to get a dog? they wondered.

However, if it’s an indirect question—a paraphrase, in other words—no question mark is necessary:

They wondered whether it was a good time to get a dog.

Besides being indicators of tone of voice, exclamation points and question marks have something else in common: they are both treated the same way when it comes to combining them with quotation marks or parentheses. They are placed inside if they apply to the material inside the quotes or parentheses, but if not, then they go outside. Some examples will make this clearer:

The vet asked, “Has your puppy been sleeping well?”

In this sentence, the material inside the quotes is a question, so the question mark goes inside. Compare to:

 Have you read that blog post called “Training Your New Puppy”?

Here, the title of the post is “Training Your New Puppy” (no question mark). The question is whether the reader has read the article, so the question mark goes outside the quotes.

Same goes with parentheses:

Maddie loves her new teddy bear toy. (She never lets it out of her sight!)

The exclamation mark belongs with the second sentence inside the parentheses. But:

Puppies love to chew (maybe because they’re teething)!

Here the exclamation mark emphasizes the whole sentence, but especially the first part of it. The material inside the parentheses is just a speculation on the reason for the chewing and would not by itself require an exclamation mark.

So be on the lookout for interesting uses of exclamation points and question marks “in the wild.” Can you find examples of them inside and outside of quotes and parentheses? Please share your examples below! 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think Maddie needs to go outside. 😊

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