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In Zinsser's "On Writing Well," he says to avoid the exclamation point altogether. I agree it's juvenile and robs the reader of their chance to feel the impact of something for themselves.

However, I've run into a use case that relies on exclamation:

In writing about cognitive science, I'm often citing studies whose conclusions counter common sense. I'll explain the study and then write the counter-intuitive outcome:

"If, however, they're told xyz, they're less motivated!"

(In this case, for instance, you'd expect that the subject, when told xyz, would be more motivated.)

The only other way I can see to accomplish this is to say, "they're less motivated, not more"––but this seems dull. If I don't explicitly point out that this is a counter-intuitive conclusion, I feel the reader could easily miss it. That's why I've fallen back on the exclamation as an aid for the reader to easily spot counter-intuitive findings from the research.

Are there other ways to mark the unexpected or counter-intuitive, other than the two I mentioned? Is the exclamation forgivable in this case?

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    Could you use italics to emphasize, "less"? – Mikey Sep 14 '15 at 19:41
  • @Mikey, good point. I'm writing in a console-based editor so I didn't even think of this. – Kyle Sep 16 '15 at 19:23
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I'd certainly avoid exclamation points in academic writing, if that's what you're working on.

I think it would be more effective to elaborate on the point you want to emphasize. For example:

If, however, they're told xyz, they're actually less motivated. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the results have been confirmed in several studies, and are usually ascribed to a combination of alcoholism and natural-born cussedness.

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The problem with using the exclamation mark in this situation is that readers may not realise the point(or even notice it). Therefore, I would err on the side of caution and make it very explicit. Surely this is the real point you are trying to make. Boring is better than ignored or misunderstood.

Having said the above, you need to be very aware of your audience. How will they react? An English student/researcher is going to feel differently about the use of the exclamation mark than a scientist.

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