Coffee House

The DfE has issued guidance on exclamation marks. How Orwellian is that!

6 March 2016

6:04 PM

6 March 2016

6:04 PM

A friend of mine, another journalist, is getting terrifically worked up about the Department for Education’s persecution of exclamation marks. He’s busy writing a defence of free punctuation and because he’s a better stylist than the people laying down the law on this one, this will sting. Apparently, exam bureaucrats told teachers and moderators at a briefing run by the Standards Testing Agency last month that the use of an ‘exclamation sentence’ must start with either a ‘how’ or ‘what’ and must be a full sentence – including a verb. So, ‘What a delightful home yours is!’ is fine; ‘Awesome!’ is not.

Naturally, there’s going to be a backlash. It started in that fine periodical, Schools Week a fortnight ago, and this week takes to the Sunday Times and from there it moves to the rest of the media. And like all the best fights, there’s a cultural and political component to it. And this component may be roughly summed up as anti-authoritarianism on one side, and a sense on the other that children are best served by having some rules to work with.


So, the anti-authoritarians are very keen on letting punctuation, and grammar generally, develop where and as it will. The favourite case study here is George Orwell’s famous essay on the abuse of English in which he lays into the over-use of the passive voice. Ah, the critics say, but that very essay is peppered with the passive. Go figure! (A sentence, I should say, with a verb, but which does not start with How or What.)

In this case, there’s plainly a tendency in our culture to use exclamation marks by way of intonation, sometimes without a verb, sometimes with How or What. ‘How great is that!’ should be fine under the new guidelines, in that it starts with a How and includes a verb, but it’s slang. I’d say the exclamation mark is used by girls way more than boys, by way of declamatory emphasis.

But a broader point needs making. Of course teachers and exam authorities look like twits when they lay down prescriptive rules. Of course many journalists – some of whom write far better than the educationalists – can point out examples of how this makes for clunking prose. Oliver Kamm, a leader writer for the Times and a lovely stylist, has written an entire book about how we should just grow up and use grammar and punctuation exactly as we want to. But I have issues with this approach. It’s absolutely fine to make free with language and its rules if you’ve been to a really good school – as Oliver Kamm and my literary friend did – and you know exactly what those rules are and how you break them. But it really is another matter if you haven’t been schooled in the active and passive voice, and your grip on punctuation of any sort is tenuous. Listening to contemporary police statements – which are full of jargon and poorly constructed sentences – you can see exactly why the DoE is getting all Orwellian.

In fact, it’s rather an indicator of privilege that you can afford to play fast and loose with language. You can make free with syntax and punctuation if you know what you’re doing. For the less sure-footed – and it’s often a class thing – you cling to the rules because the usage around you isn’t any guide to what’s acceptable. My own, unhelpful advice to the DoE would be to teach the rules of grammar as prescriptively as they want to… and then teach children how to break those rules. Having said which, its rule on exclamation marks is nuts.

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Show comments
  • evad666

    ! What!? Why!? and How often!!

  • dickhut

    I agree that people should be free to use whatever punctuation marks they wish, so long as the meaning is not distorted.
    That said, the over use of exclamation marks devalues them and is a product of those American comics that put them at the end of virtually every sentence.

  • Judith Brennan

    It is very sad to see children using exclamation marks to enhance their writing and please the teacher, when really they are inappropriate – and though a teacher can “tick” that a child has used an exclamation mark, ( and is on his/her way to the next level), in fact it shows that the child does not really understand the use of the exclamation mark. “Children do not learn by osmosis,” say the experts; but in fact, children who are well read will probably understand the use of exclamation marks, question marks etc. I really don’t think children can apply learned rules to their writing.

  • Tim Gilling

    What an extraordinary waste of time that could be profitably spent stamping out apostrophe crime.

  • MC

    – He asked is this correct for speech?
    The room fell silent.
    – Only if you read Joyce, murmured an out of fashion plebiscite.
    Do you understand that which I stated? If so, me gramer und spelling is fine.

  • Aggie

    I believe it was Elmore Leonard, in his advice to would-be authors, who said that you should only use an exclamation mark every 100 000 words. And then only when it was absolutely necessary.

    • anosrep

      Dickens used 71 in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol, which is 6,431 words long. I have heard of Dickens; I have never heard of Elmore Leonard.

      • Aggie

        Blimey! Did you count them? Respect!

        • anosrep

          No, I copied and pasted it into Microsoft Word (other word processors are also available) and let it do the counting for me.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    Oliver Kamm, rightly praised above, says many people who moan about grammar are actually criticising spelling and punctuation. His excellent book, ‘Accidence Will Happen’, says English grammar is actually in robust good health. It’s learned automatically by native English speakers of all classes. It has to do with such things as word order and how to construct tenses.

    Kamm objects to those who set themselves up as experts and attempt to impose their stylistic preferences on to those they consider badly uneducated. He punctures pedants who fuss about split infinitives or ending sentences with a preposition. But Kamm does not, as the article suggests, advise playing fast and loose with grammar or punctuation. In his Times article (March 5 2016) he writes, ‘Because my writings on language are critical of many purported grammatical rules that aren’t real rules, I’m sometimes accused of believing that “anything goes”. That’s quite untrue.’

    And you don’t have to go to a ‘good school’ to use English grammar correctly. It’s caught, not taught, as Kamm points out.

    • JabbaPapa

      He punctures pedants who fuss about split infinitives or ending sentences with a preposition

      The true “grammar snobs” — AKA those with an honest and detailed understanding of how Grammar actually works — care not a fig about such nonsense lieux communs.

      • Sanctimony

        Grammarians try and pretend… “try to pretend”, if you please and as you are now pontificating about the correct usage of the English language.

        During my time with the Jesuits, we progressed from Rudiments (equivalent of the third form) to Grammar to Syntax, thence to Poetry or Rhetoric (the latter two depending on scholastic ability and achievement).

        Undoubtedly, you, (JabbaPapa or Woman in White) would have been streamed into what the Jesuits called Upper Syntax, a limbo for the dimmest and most ill-educated of their charges, for whom there was little hope for further education.

  • #toryscum

    Teach everyone Marain instead.

  • anotherpaddington

    Time to get reading!
    amy krouse rosenthal and tom lichtenheld

  • Barb

    So, ‘What the f*ck!’ is acceptable then? (!)

  • The PrangWizard of England

    ‘way more than’ – way? wot’s that, the right way, or the wrong way?

  • Arthur Sparknottle

    “I’d say the exclamation mark is used by girls way more than boys,”

    ‘Way’ more? Really?

    • hobspawn

      I couldn’t decide it that was more irritating than all the “making free with”.

    • anosrep

      Dickens used seventy-one in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol, which is 6,431 words long. I have heard of Dickens; I have never heard of Elmore Leonard.

      • Arthur Sparknottle

        Then you might gain by extending your reading, notwithstanding that Dickens wrote some wonderful popular fiction which I greatly enjoy, particularly the creation of a host wonderful and humorously named characters.

    • Judith Brennan

      Are you guessing, or are you observing?

      • Arthur Sparknottle

        You should read more closely Judith. The assertion you seem to refer to is not mine. It is a quotation from the article which I take issue with. It is not mine; I am questioning the use of the use of ‘way’ in the sentence rather than the word ‘much’, which would be actually English usage rather than American slang.

        • Ahobz

          I think you will find “way more” is common usage in teen to twenty-somthing females in hte UK. I took the sentence to be deliberate and ironic use of teen type usage. A typical communication by a teen girl is “OMG!!!!!!”

        • Judith Brennan

          My apologies, Arthur.

          • Arthur Sparknottle

            Don’t worry Judith…. I was being a bit of an @ r s e… 🙂

  • Mary Ann

    I wonder if the people who are complaining about this are also the people who complain about poor punctuation.

  • Shorne

    “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
    ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

    • JabbaPapa

      “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
      ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

      • Sanctimony

        Your point being ?

        Are we supposed to believe that you are well-read… well, at least in modern American literature ?

    • sir_graphus

      I contributed a recipe to a school fundraising cookbook. In it, I put in two mildly humorous lines. The editor put in exclamation marks. I was fuming; made me look a right fool.

      • Judith Brennan


  • grimm

    Email software should be modified to prevent anyone using more than one exclamation mark per paragraph. They are used by easily excited people as a crude device to communicate a sense of urgency.

    • JabbaPapa

      Other people’s writing style ain’t any of your business in the first place !!!!! Is it ???!!?

    • Arthur Sparknottle

      Elmore Leonard said that there ought to be no more than two or three exclamation marks in a hundred thousand words of prose.

      • JabbaPapa

        Then Elmore Leonard is a complete ! blinking !! fool !!!

        Let’s raise a glass or two of Est! Est!! Est!!! in honour of his silly prescription !!!!_Est!!_Est!!!_di_Montefiascone

        • Arthur Sparknottle

          Have you read any Elmore Leonard? He was a writer of masterpieces. Wonderful economy and no ‘hoopdedoodle’.

          • JabbaPapa

            That might be so, but his personal style still does not impose upon anything other than his own writing.

            Perhaps an honorary toast in his name with the Est! Est!! Est!!! white wine could be organised in Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec ?

  • Andrew Cole


  • Gilbert White

    What the beautiful enrichers of Camberwell Green will make of this is antibodies guess?!!!!!!

  • Some Rabbit

    From ‘received’ pronunciation to the Oxford comma and now the humble exclamation, no nation on earth has done more harm to the king’s English than Britain (well, with the exception of Australia perhaps).

    • grimm

      Not Australia – America. The Americans have rounded off most of our words to make them smoother and easier to pronounce. Hence, battle becomes baddle, news becomes nooz, what do you mean becomes whadayameen etc.

  • kentgeordie

    Oliver Kamm says that there is only one law of language: usage. The Queen, the BBC, dictionaries and textbooks, even the poshest schools, have no greater authority than the naked emperor.
    The comments above and below show that most of us have yet to understand or adopt this view..

  • Greenslime


  • Radford_NG

    “And now,from the gas-works end,it’s McDonagh to the DfE.”

    “Howzat !”

    “Out !”

    • AndyL

      Surely “Howzat?”

      • Radford_NG

        But is it a question or an exclamation ? I thought that,after I wrote it.Pedantically it is both a (?) and a (!).I think this is where Orwell comes in when he wrote that we should obey the rules but not be overly correct ;we should,in my words,consider what is aesthetically appropriate on the page.
        I think “Howzat ! ” on it’s own as an exclamation is more appropriate.

        • vieuxceps2

          I think “on its own” is more appropriate

        • Robbydot1

          Talking about aesthetically appropriate on the page it really annoys me when people don’t use the space bar after punctuation. Why!

  • AdrianM

    We used to call it a ‘screamer’ in the advertising game, and how very apposite this epithet is.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    The state education racket veers from one ill-chosen fleeting fancy to another. During my time teaching in FE I was astonished and saddened constantly by the depths of ignorance about syntax & punctuation among the majority of teenage students, whose ten or more years of schooling had not included any guidance at all, seemingly, on the use of the apostrophe. They would nearly always insist they had never been taught how to use it: I suspect quite often they were right.
    Now, it seems the Prodnoses of the DfE wish to impose pettifogging rules that take no account of stylistic and other demands. Lunacy – but predictable to anyone who has followed the bizarre contortions of state education for a few decades.
    One of the key reasons so many people have traditionally been ready to fork out large sums to educate their children privately is that in the private sector, rationality and common sense hold sway to a far greater extent.

    • Arthur Sparknottle

      You do know that virtually the entirety of your FE students represented the lower third of the cohort in terms of their ability and educational achievement Malcolm, don’t you?

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Yes, of course: those having to re-do their GCSEs in FE were by definition the academically less able, with very few exceptions in my all too long experience as an FE lecturer. But it always seemed to fly in the face of nature for hardly any (I mean that literally) of them, practically none at all, to know the extremely simple rules for using the apostrophe. Since most of them were not actually brain dead or subnormal, I could conclude only that their teachers/schools had been seriously remiss. Then there were all those A-level English students who didn’t actually like books very much and hardly ever read for pleasure – I kid you not…

        • Arthur Sparknottle

          I know for a fact that these rules were habitually hammered alongside a host of other supposedly simple, easily learned ideas and techniques and that the bottom third of the ability range in an inner city comprehensive school seemed immune to any attempt to have them become second nature. The other two thirds were a different matter and they left to do all kinds of jobs and higher level courses. I have concluded that there is what I describe as a form of belligerent ignorance abroad in our white working class society. It does not afflict the whole of that section of society, but does limit the future of a substantial part of it, which during the nineteen seventies, eighties and nineties, despised education, hard work and effort outside traditional heavy, manual trades and industrial roles in what are now described as old fashioned long defunct industry like mining, steel making and heavy engineering. To be fair, looking back Malcolm, there wasn’t much demand for knowing the rules on possessive apostrophes in those jobs, and as many of them actually said to me, ‘What do I need to know this for? I’m going to work in the xxxxxx when I am sixteen.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Arthur, I know what you mean about that “belligerent ignorance”, wilful stultification, sullen hostility to any suggestion of intellectual betterment… What marked previous generations (my father’s and grandfathers’) was that their acquisition of the basics in English and mathematics (granted, possibly often against their will…) fitted them for promotion within those traditional manual jobs, or out of them for something better. My reference to the apostrophe does not mean I’m obsessed with it, simply that it’s a clear example of something terribly simple that too many teachers seemed to give up on – maybe because they imagined their pupils were destined inevitably for manual work and/or life on the dole…

            BTW more than once I have seen written the word “apostrophe’s” which brought a wry smile; and once I overheard a colleague consulting one of her students on the phone, and having been asked for a reminder about how & why the apostrophe was used, she replied uncertainly, “Well, er, it’s [little laugh] because something’s plural…”

            • Arthur Sparknottle

              I think we are both on the same page Malcolm. Have a good day.

          • JabbaPapa

            You’re both making very good points — but crikey, couldn’t you do so more legibly ???!!!!!!!!!

  • T Gould

    It is shocking how politicised grammar is in this country. Anything beyond the absolute basics taught or insisted upon is seen as victorian and mean-spirited. What suffers is teaching of language.
    The way grammar is wholly avoided in schools means when people come to learn other languages they have to stumble around in the dark or learn things they should have known about for years.

    I’ll admit when it comes to use basically anything goes and this isn’t particularly harmful, but the only people helped by railing against usage guidelines for exclamation marks are lazy, ideological teachers and idiots who tacitly endorse the lowering of standards through complicity or ignorance.

    • Andrew Cole

      It isn’t avoided in schools anymore. That was one of Gove’s insistences. Grammar, puctuation and spelling have been restored to the requirements.

      Which is good becoz ppl should speak proper like uz oldys

      • chesters

        I agree, but Gove brought it back in the teeth of strong opposition from the NUT, and many of the teachers employed at the primary school where I’m a governor are, for example, loathe to correct pupils’ spelling mistakes in case it should dampen their ‘self-esteem’. They are having to be dragged, screaming, into focussing on grammar, punctuation, and spelling. They are also rather quick to suggest a child may have dyslexia, or special needs, when the problem is clearly bad teaching. This is the kind of teacher ‘mind-set’ that I observe, and which Gove wanted to confront. I don’t want to generalise, and I don’t like the kind of prescriptiveness about exclamation marks which prompted the article, but I’d bet this kind of teacher attitude is widespread in local authority primary schools.

        • Arthur Sparknottle

          Part of the problem here is that the ranks of English teachers look more like the ranks of Momentum than they do of the general population, let alone the Conservative Party. The same is true of history teachers and teachers of geography. This has been true for about thirty years in my opinion.

        • Andrew Cole

          Totally agree with you. It is a far cry from when I was at the same school as my kids where 1 teacher controlled the whole class of 30 or so with ease and would slowly walk around the class with his little stick rapping knuckles for mistakes.

          This was probably the last years of corporal punishment for bad behaviour. Kids were better behaved though back then. It is a nightmare even with my reasonably well behaved kids these days because they think they can just do what they want.

          Teachers are like the humanitarians on this refugee crisis. It is all about human rights, and wellbeing without ever looking at harsh realities. That being that kids are leaving school writing application letters to prospective employers that look like the village idiot wrote them.

          • chesters

            your last paragraph is especially telling, and sad: young people leaving school unable to write properly is a terrible indictment of our education system and its low expectations.

            And when I’ve been critical of the noise level in the primary school where I’m a governor, and critical of the excessive use of group work, I’ve been accused of being old fashioned and wanting to return to Victorian teaching methods.

            The children must, of course, have the right to express themselves, all over the place, at all times.

    • JabbaPapa

      The way grammar is wholly avoided in schools means when people come to

      … pontificate about the poor grammar of others, they still neglect to insert “that” between “means” and “when” !!!!!

      (and let’s not get started on the inelegant weirdness of : “comes to use basically anything goes and” !!!!!)

      • T Gould

        I’m afraid I’m a product of the failed modern school system, sorry guv.

        • JabbaPapa

          Fair enough

  • The Masked Marvel

    It’s not as Orwellian as replacing ‘EU’ with ‘Europe’, or ‘illegal immigrant’ with ‘migrant’, ‘Man-made Global Warming’ with ‘Climate Change’, or ‘Islamic State’ with ‘Daesh’, now, is it?

    • Texas Sunday Morning

      A brief Google Ngram search shows ‘Climate Change’ predates ‘Global Warming’ as a term by about twenty years. And that both terms have been used simultaneously since the 1970s.

      • Shari Belue

        “my .friend’s mate Is getting 98$. HOURLY. on the internet.”….

        two days ago new Mc.Laren. F1 bought after earning 18,512$,,,this was my previous month’s paycheck ,and-a little over, 17k$ Last month ..3-5 h/r of work a days ..with extra open doors & weekly. paychecks.. it’s realy the easiest work I have ever Do.. I Joined This 7 months ago and now making over 87$, p/h.Learn. More right Hereoo!454➤➤➤➤➤ http://GlobalSuperEmploymentVacanciesReportsLive/GetPaid/98$hourly…. .❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:❖:❦:::::oo!454…….

      • JabbaPapa

        Also, they don’t mean the same thing in the first place !!!!

        Global cooling would be climate change too !!!

      • The Masked Marvel

        Not by the Warmist crowd it they haven’t. It was exclusively ‘Global Warming’ until they could no longer shout down the evidence of a good pause. Track BBC usage for a prime example.

        • Texas Sunday Morning

          I don’t really care what journalists say, I care what scientists say.

    • Frank

      Also good to see that, as the rates of literacy slide down the scale in our schools, the Department of Education appears to be mainly worried about exclamation marks.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        Your evidence for rates of literacy sliding ‘down the scale’ is…?

        • JabbaPapa

          … simple observation of the general public ?

      • Judith Brennan

        Look; teachers have to show progress. The use of exclamation marks shows progress. So teachers are going to encourage the use of exclamation marks.

  • Ian

    Is this OK¡

  • Holly

    What else is there to say???

  • WFC

    Having said which, it’s rule on exclamation marks is nuts.


  • WFC

    Bet that’s gone down well in “Westward Ho!”.

    • starfish

      Good use of quotes – you could have got into a real pedantry maelstrom

  • JustStark

    It is a rule that every article on punctuation contains at least one mistake; final sentence, possessive ‘its’.

    • Paul Giles
    • Andrew Cole

      Have they corrected the article? it’s = it is, its = possessive. The article used its for possessive so at the time I write this its correct.

      • Arthur Sparknottle

        You meant, ‘it’s correct’, I think.

        • Andrew Cole

          Touche 😉 corrected it now.

  • telemachus

    telemachus has never been a great fan of punctuation

    • CaediteEos

      few people have ever been a great fan of telemachus

      • Hengist

        CaediteEos necat eum.

    • flipkipper

      i wish i could be like you wessexmachus
      with an air of Bernie Sanders irrelevance

    • Kerr Mudgeon

      It’s a choice? I assumed you went to a sink comprehensive in a Labour-controlled local authority. In any event, those who cannot use punctuation properly are held in low esteem by the rest of us.

      • Arthur Sparknottle

        Odd really. I’ve met all kinds of people and mixed happily with most of them from Lords to road sweepers. I discovered a long time ago that the measure of a man has little to do with his social class, a great deal of which he has little or no control over. It is not the road sweeper’s fault that he attended a less than stellar school, or was brought up in the home of a poor man or that his mother was not married. What matters, is what kind of a man he is, and there is no clear relationship between being a thoroughly good chap, or a heroic individual and his social class. You might benefit from spending some time with working class members of our armed services. I think a tough march through difficult terrain in the company of such fellows; under threat of enemy fire, might recalibrate your feelings about the relative worth of men who can write according to the rules, and those who can do and dare, but attended sink comprehensives, and lived in working class homes.

    • Ed  

      Punctuation, rules-based or otherwise takes thought.

      The shortfall is self-evident.

    • Greenslime

      Plenty of people would love to introduce you to some punctuation – the full stop in particular.

    • Arthur Sparknottle

      Or proper capitalisation, it would seem. Is this because you don’t know the rules, or because you choose to disregard them?

    • A real liberal

      Or, indeed, reasonable argument.