I have long considered the exclamation point as a kind of fascist

“Dr. IQ” transitioned from radio to television. Here, in a Dec. 15, 1958 episode, an answer is solicited from an audience member of the number of candles President Dwight Eisenhower had on his birthday cake.

To lighten things up today, let’s play “Dr. I. Q., The Mental Banker.”

People of a certain age will recall “Dr. I. Q.” as a popular audience-participation quiz show that flourished on radio in the 1940s. Many consider it the first great quiz show to ever hit the airwaves; its ratings were always in the top 10.

Members of a live studio audience were randomly selected — announcers with mics roamed the theater so contestants could be heard — to answer a question put to them by Dr. I. Q. If the contestant got it right, he was awarded a bevy of silver dollars, the amount determined by how hard the question was.

One of the announcers would begin by introducing a contestant, “Doctor, I have a lady in the balcony.”

And the Doctor would shoot back right away a question like, “Mexico, our nearest neighbor to the south, touches three of our states besides Texas. Seven dollars if you name all three.”

The contestant had 10 seconds to answer, the Doctor from time to time cautioning the audience “No coaching now.” The pace was lickity-split. Correct answer or not, the announcer was onto the next person.

And if a contestant got the question wrong, Dr. I. Q. always had a sugary aloe, “Oh, I’m sorry! I think you’d find that a rooster is the only kind of chicken that doesn’t lay eggs — but a box of 24 delicious Mars Bars to that lady and two tickets to next week’s production here at the beautiful Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis.” (That from an actual show.)

Let’s begin our game here right now. I’ll be the MC and start with this, “Doctor, I have a young man at The Altamont Enterprise newspaper.”

And, playing the part of the Doctor as well, I respond: “I have a two-part question for the man at The Enterprise, sir. Part 1 for 20 silver dollars is: How many punctuation marks are there in the English language?”

And Part 2 of the question, for 100 silver dollars, is: Name every one of those marks. The clock is ticking, no coaching please.

And also playing the part of the contestant, here is my answer to Part 1, “Doctor, there are 14 punctuation marks.”

“That is correct! There are 14 punctuation marks, 20 silver dollars to the man from The Enterprise.”

And here, Doctor, for Part 2 of the question, are the names of the marks: (1) the period, (2) the question mark, (3) the exclamation point, (4) the comma, (5) colon, (6) semicolon, (7) dash, (8) hyphen, (9) brackets, (10) braces, (11) parentheses, (12) apostrophe, (13) quotation marks, and (14) ellipsis.

“That is correct! 100 silver dollars to the man at The Enterprise. Outstanding, son, outstanding!

As a writer, I keep those 14 stabilizing tools in a small kit bag atop my writing board daily. They are my Good Samaritans. I have studied and mulled over their nature so much I can split enough hairs to make Dr. I. Q.’s hair stand.

Of course, the neophyte writer has at his disposal style manuals that show the proper way to lay down a comma or a dash. In assessing those marks myself, I have long considered the exclamation point as a kind of fascist, the writer telling the reader to get hyped up with what was just said, as in, “I really like you!” How about, “I really! like you.”

When I look over the conversations I have by text, I am amazed at how often people use the exclamation point to make a point. Even Jeb Bush’s logo for his presidential run in 2016 was: Jeb!

In an oft-quoted study done in 2006, researchers looked at the number of times men and women used the exclamation point in their electronic communiqués and found that women used far more than men, as well as more emojis, caps, and word repetitions.

In a June 2019 article in “BBC Worklife” titled “The danger of overusing exclamation marks,” Emily Torres said she knew why in her own case: “Each unnecessary exclamation mark is a little request to my recipient to my request to please like me, and please say yes.”

She said her fear was, “I won’t get what I want or need, so I soften my tone and emphasise my interest. I add a layer of friendliness because I don’t want to be perceived as cold.”

For years, I facilitated a poetry workshop at the public library in our village at which I found myself repeating the maxim, “Some words incorporate others.”

That is, I can say, “I went to the store quickly” but cannot say “I ran to the store quickly.” If you’re running, you’re already quick; “ran” incorporates “quickly” thereby eliminating the need for it; poets speak of such economies of scale as “concinnity.”

All the poet/writer really wants to do with punctuation is have the reader assume the same rhythm/pace/breathing pattern that occurred when he received the story (via vatic consciousness) in the first place.

I don’t think there ever was a writer who’s taken more flak for her use of punctuation than the great American treasure Emily Dickinson. Even the poet’s so-called friends, when they started putting her posthumously-collected poems into book form — Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd — edited her punctuation as if she didn’t know the English language.

The reality is they were pandering to the Victorian reader’s constricted breathing patterns that conflicted with how easily Emily’s breath flowed onto the page.

Here’s a riddle: If Emily Dickinson were one of Santa’s reindeers, who would she be? The answer: Dasher. Per pound, per square inch, or by any other measure, Dickinson used the dash more than any reindeer in history.

Here’s an example in her poem #18 (she never titled her poems; a numbering system was later devised by editors).




Morns like these — we parted —
Noons like these — she rose —
Fluttering first — then firmer
To her fair repose.

Never did she lisp it —
It was not for me —
She—was mute from transport —
I — from agony —

Till—the evening nearing
One the curtains drew—
Quick! A Sharper rustling!
And this linnet flew!


Twelve dashes for 52 words — nearly 25 percent — might be an indoor record.

When I first read Miss Emily, the dashes bothered me but I learned to understand the way she spoke, so now, I’m happy to report, I breathe like her.

It’s been on my mind for years to go to our grammar school up the road and find out at what grade kids in our school system are taught punctuation (and grammar) and how the sales pitch is received.

Are the kids interested in what it takes to express themselves clearly? How about the teachers?

Do they understand that the more a person’s words follow the natural rhythm of his/her/their innermost self, the greater the chance is that that person will find a modicum of happiness in life?

For the correct answers to these questions, Dr. I. Q. says he’s got a million silver dollars waiting in a truck just outside the gates of Fort Knox.