Literacy Shorts: Exclamation Marks

Exclamation marks can be used to indicate particularly strong emotions.  For example:

‘Ofsted have called.’

‘Ofsted have called!’

In the first example, the speaker declaring that Ofsted have called seems unremarkable.  Nothing extraordinary or terrifying in that.  Just a phone call.  However, in the second example, the exclamation mark completely transforms the tone: the speaker’s living, breathing fear is clearly communicated.  Dark times.  Anyway, we’re all through that now, so here’s a more cheery example from The Ladies’ Paradise (originally Au Bonheur des Dames), by Émile Zola:

‘‘Ah!’ said Mouret, when he could speak, ‘you can sell as much as you like when you know how to sell!  There lies our success.’’

The Ladies' ParadiseThe novel is set in late nineteenth-century Paris and charts the rising fortunes of a modern department store –  the Ladies’ Paradise of the title – and its owner, Octave Mouret.  In the quote above, Mouret is revealing his business model to Baron Hartmann, a rich and well-connected entrepreneur, in an attempt to gain his favour.  The two exclamation marks help to convey the charming provinҫial zest with which Mouret is speaking.  Take them away, however, and the enthusiasm in his voice is lost: Baron Hartmann would surely be unimpressed.

Here’s another example from the play Dr Faustus, written by Christopher Marlowe (performed posthumously, around 1594):

FAUSTUS: O my leg, my leg!  Help, Mephastophilis!  Call the officers!  My leg, my leg!

Dr FaustusThe play is about a German scholar – Dr John Faustus –  who sells his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty-four years of unlimited power.  At this stage of the play, Faustus, who is well into his twenty-four years, has decided to sell his horse as part of an elaborate practical joke.  He is ably abetted by Mephastophilis, his satanic sidekick.  Prior to the sale, Faustus makes a point of warning the buyer not to ride the horse through water.  Of course, this is exactly what the buyer does…  The horse turns into a bundle of hay, the buyer gets wet, and much hilarity ensues.  As you might expect, the buyer is absolutely furious and comes after Faustus to seek reimbursement.  Eventually, the buyer finds Faustus, who is pretending to be asleep.  To rouse him, the buyer decides, quite reasonably, to pull his leg.  However, the leg comes off in his hand and much panic ensues.  Here, the exclamation marks help to convey Faustus’s apparent shock and pain and, in doing so, create a pleasing sense of melodrama.  Oh, how we laughed!

No test this week (what with Ofsted having visited and all).  However, I do have some wider-reading for you to undertake at your leisure: have a look at the poet Carol Ann Duffy’s retelling of the Faust myth:

TL;DR: exclamation marks can be used to indicate particularly strong emotions.

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