[The Angry Grammarian] Fewer hyphens, more exclamation points

This week’s developments in punctuation

Jeffrey Barg

Oxford come-on

It was an intense week for punctuation.

Hyphens, for starters, got a serious rogering in the New York Times, which reported that Shorter Oxford English Dictionary editor Angus Stevenson, international hero, did away with 16,000 hyphens in the latest edition.

Good riddance to ’em.

Buzz off, “bumble-bee.” Eat it, “ice-cream.” “Cry-baby”? I’ll give you something to cry about.

Not that hyphens don’t have their place ... sometimes. They help us distinguish between a small businessman and a small-business man, to quote an oft-used example. But most of the time they take up space and ink, cluttering the text where just a space or no break at all would suffice.

As always, the new Shorter OED is endearing in its Britishness, whether with its addition of “yummy mummy” (a British MILF) or of “manbag” (like a man-purse). Some of the new words added, like “smoosh,” seem way late in making it in, while terms like “biffy,” which they claim is an American term for toilet, I’ve never heard before. And that’s saying a lot for someone who makes his bones researching scatological slang.

Women hate periods

While hyphens were getting their pink slips (no, dictionary nerds, not pink-slips) last week, exclamation points were having a serious workout (don’t even think about hyphenating “work-out”) in New York’s other old-people paper, The Wall Street Journal.

For a long time writers have known how to manipulate readers’ emotions using punctuation marks. It was only a matter of time before corporate America caught on.

In a column on—of all things—managing businesswomen, the WSJ’s Erin White describes how consulting firm Deloitte & Touche is using exclamation points to better connect with women. Since men, they reason, don’t use the exclamation point.

Never mind the fact that they’re correct. Advertising throughout history, from Joop! perfume to Rosie the Riveter (“We Can Do It!”), has exploited the exclamation point in pursuit of female consumers. One female friend of mine ends every declarative statement, in both e-mail and text messages, with an exclamation point. Even the band !!!, while not technically possessing any female members, is super-girly in its annoying hipster-ness.

Once corporations have co-opted the exclamation point for target marketing, what will we wordy types have left? Couldn’t we just give them the interrobang instead?

This week on the Angry Grammarian podcast: crashing the 215 Festival Amateur Spelling Bee. Subscribe free at

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Oct 18, 2007
Top of Story