Author Topic: Anne Helen Petersen's theory of the modern exclamation point  (Read 12965 times)

Joe Carillo

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Anne Helen Petersen's theory of the modern exclamation point
« on: January 19, 2024, 08:36:15 AM »
In "Doing the Work of Tone," her essay that she recently published in her Substack.com website, American writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen observes that people often think we’re just talking about tone when the subject of exclamation points is discussed: "But what goes unsaid is that tone is the performance of niceness or seriousness. It is the work of matching sentence structure to gender norms, industry norms, workplace norms, and generational norms. It is switching norms dozens if not hundreds of times a day, as you shift from text to email, from group chat to professional Teams Message. And we are doing this Tone Work exponentially more than at any point in history."

Anne Petersen's theory takes issue against the well-intentioned but regressive advice that If you’re a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated industry and you have just finished writing your e-mail, you ought to "go through [it] and replace all the exclamation points with periods."


"Like many writers," Anne Petersen recalls with good-humored dismay, "I went through an extreme em-dash phase (if you think I use a lot of em-dashes now, you have no idea). Then I moved on to the colon, and at some point, the semi-colon. This was in my late teens and 20s. I was reading a lot of Henry James…..and then a lot of academic writing."

When she started to teach writing to college students, though, the exclamation point became the embodient of her teaching appoach when doing critiques of essays and grading them: "The first sentence would start with praise, then an em-dash, then the real news: what needed work. A short list of things to refine, ending with encouragement, almost always capped with an exclamation point... To think that an exclamation point could be imbued with such power: to make a person feel hopeful instead of hopeless. In other contexts: welcomed instead of excluded, safe instead of afraid. To diffuse tension, to ease power imbalances. If those things are 'feminine,' we should be teaching all people to use them more, not less." 

Read in full Anne Helen Petersen's "Doing the Work of Tone" in her Substack.com website now! 
« Last Edit: January 20, 2024, 07:45:12 AM by Joe Carillo »