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In writing, particularly writing dialogue or speech-like prose, it is custom to use the punctuation to indicate the tone of the speech.

As such, one often uses an exclamation point on a standard statement which would make it a statement made with an exclamatory tone, i.e. an exclamatory statement.

Now, what about an exclamation punctuated with a full stop? Instead of shouting

"Boy, was I wrong!", hands in the air

you say

"Boy, was I wrong.", even-toned

or with an ellipsis

"Boy, was I wrong...", lowering your tone and shaking your head.

I have an inkling that all those are grammatically correct, but let's say I am writing an article, trying to engage my reader as if I would be talking directly to him. Are there cases where it would be frowned upon using something like that? Should I prefer using an exclamation point in every case, or try to reformulate the statement?

Clarification:
There seems to have some confusion on my intent. I don't want to sound exclamative, but the way I structure my sentence, with an interrogative word at the beginning and the sentence not being a question would point to the sentence being an exclamation, which by definition comes with an exclamation point. That's what prompted me to ask in the first place.

  • Surely 'Was I wrong?' is grammatically a question rather than a statement? Even though it's a rhetorical one, it strictly speaking needs a question mark. – Kate Bunting Nov 7 '17 at 9:03
  • @KateBunting "Boy, was I wrong" should not have a question mark. It's a statement. The grammar is colloquial. – Max Williams Nov 7 '17 at 9:04
  • You apparently have been a member of Writers SE for about 7 years. Perhaps you forgot about it. :) – NVZ Nov 7 '17 at 18:17
  • @NVZ: Yeah completely forgot, also looking at what I asked at the time, my writing focus was completely elsewhere. – Eldros Nov 8 '17 at 8:01
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On the old typewriters, there was no ! key. To create an exclamation mark you had to type a single quote, backspace, and type a period. That was a good system. Exclamation marks should be hard to type. There is a good argument to be made for breaking them off your keyboard altogether.

There is a longstanding debate about whether or not writing is recorded speech. Speech came before writing, so it is reasonable to ask if writing is just writing down speech, and should therefore try to capture not only the spoken words, but the tone in which they are spoken.

To shortcut this debate, record some literal speech and make a literal transcript. If this does not convince you that writing is not recorded speech, nothing will.

So, writing is not recorded speech and you should not try to use punctuation to indicate tone of voice in writing. If you want to convey tone in writing, you do it by the tone of the writing itself, not by imitating the tones of speech.

Speech and writing are different media, just as movies and novels are different media. The operate differently and achieve their effects in different ways. Nor are their effects equivalent. There are things you can achieve in a novel that you cannot achieve in a movie, and vice versa; and there are things you can achieve in writing that you cannot achieve in speech, and vice versa.

This is as much true, indeed, probably nowhere more true, than when you are creating putatively spoken dialogue in a work of fiction. The first rule of dialogue is that dialogue is not speech. It is a specific literary form with its own rules and conventions. It is not how people actually talk. Writing down how people actually talk would be both tedious and confusing. Good written dialogue achieves it effectiveness and its convincing character from what they characters say, not how they say it.

  • I agree with all but the last sentence, which I consider incomplete. I know from my own reading that understanding what the fictional characters are feeling and thinking influences the way I 'hear' what they are saying. Thus in writing, informing the reader about those emotions, thoughts and reactions changes the "way they say it," which I think is important when "what they say" is ambiguous or generic. There are many ways to utter the word "No" as a response. I want my reader to hear it as I did when I wrote it, to me that requires a description of the state of mind in which it was uttered. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 7 '17 at 15:26
  • @amadeus Well, the state of mind can be expressed by what people say. Dialogue often requires replacing what is expressed in life by words, tone, and posture with words alone. But if the reader needs prior knowledge of the character's state of mind to understand how the dialogue is spoken, that should largely be achieved by the prior action. We know how they feel because we have seen what they have been through. Drama is mostly about setup, not elaborate description of the present moment. – user16226 Nov 7 '17 at 15:39
  • Very well written answer, however, it only directly addresses fictional works. I think your points would be also valid for technical writing (as I was compelled to ask this question while writing one), but your answer needs to be adapted a bit before I can accept it. – Eldros Nov 8 '17 at 8:09
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I think the answer is one of moderation and letting the reader know what you would feel. Trust your instincts. At times you must use an exclamation point to share or show strong emotion. However, if you repeatedly use exclamatory phrases the work becomes tedious and pedestrian. Moderation and instinct should be your watchwords.

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are there cases where it would be frowned upon using something like that?

Not that I'm aware of. If you are talking directly to your reader, there is a big chance you are already using a colloquial tone. "Boy, was I wrong!" isn't much more informal than "Boy, was I wrong."; there is barely a difference.

Should I prefer using an exclamation point in every case, or try to reformulate the statement?

It's up to you to decide the style. I wouldn't use them in a formal or scientific article, but otherwise they are fine. If you feel that exclamations are a good fit to get your point across, you probably should use them.

Personally I'd rather avoid them, but it's a matter of taste. There may be cases where you may want your reader to read the sentence with an higher tone, but on a more general basis I'd use italics to emphasize the test. So, "Boy, was I wrong." works for me more than "Boy, was I wrong!" and doesn't risk seeming too childish while staying colloquial.

But then again, this is just me.

  • I don't think it would change your answer, but my example was with "Boy, was I wrong." and not "Boy, I was wrong." – Eldros Nov 7 '17 at 10:38
  • My bad, I just changed word order in my mind. But yes, my point stays the same. I'm editing just because. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Nov 7 '17 at 10:40
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You are never required to use an exclamation point. Exclamation points are always optional. (You are never required to use an exclamation point! Exclamation points are always optional!) You are correct, however, that there are some sentences that exclamation points will make less ambiguous. If you don't feel right using an exclamation point in those situations, you may want to rethink use of that phrase, since you are using it as an exclamation, even if you don't punctuate it that way.

Personally I think a certain amount of conveying tone through punctuation is acceptable even in formal writing. However, it should be extremely sparing. In general, you never want your punctuation to call attention to itself, it should be almost invisible in the service of meaning.

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Stop trying to save characters typed. You can characterize the tone of the sentence with another entire sentence even longer than the uttered words.

Bill closed his eyes for a moment, his lips tightly compressed. "Boy, was I wrong."

Bill looked to Cindy, his eyes wide and lips parted in elation, transforming into a wide grin as he realized the full implications of what had just happened. "Boy, was I wrong."

Don't try to make punctuation do so much work for you. If you can describe or indicate what the character speaking is feeling, the reader will do the work of imparting the correct matching tone and volume to their spoken words.

  • Well, I am writing technical articles and it is more a discussion with the reader then. But I find the point completely valid for fiction work. – Eldros Nov 7 '17 at 12:33
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    Beware of falling into acting on the page syndrom. Most good fiction does not describe how each character says each line of dialogue. They let the dialogue speak for itself. – user16226 Nov 7 '17 at 14:10

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