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Exclamation Points and Question Marks

There are a couple of little points of punctuation that should seldom appear in technical writing: exclamation points and question marks.

 

An exclamation point exclaims. It adds excitement to what you’ve written, but it also adds an element of astonishment. If the voice of your work is fairly matter-of-fact, an exclamation point will be distracting in no matter what context you use it.

 

The name of this form of punctuation gives away its use—it is for exclaiming. If used inappropriately, it looks like the author is remarking on his or her own wit. Advertisers often use exclamation points to make their products sound more inviting. “Try our olive oil!” “Wax you car with Urqhart’s Unguent!” Just as you are not fooled by this type of advertising, neither will your reader suddenly think that populating database tables is thrilling work.

 

Exclamations, like yelling, can wear people out. Your writing should seem calm and informed, so use excitement sparingly.

 

Question marks are a little more useful, but you should again exercise caution. Question marks, of course, belong after a question. Using a question mark as a lead-in leaves the reader with a subtle doubt that you, the author, know the answer. It’s kind of like repeating the question, that transparent buying of time used by people who don’t know the answer or who are about to fabricate a lie.

 

Question marks are great in FAQs because they tell the reader which part is the question and which is the answer. They are less great in headings, because, unless you want the readers to write in with the answers, you are about to answer your own question. Answering your own question is self-conscious and distracting.

 

Don’t use a question mark after indirectly asked questions, like “the frog wondered when lunch would arrive,” or “he asked whether TechEd was fun or not.”

 

That’s about it. Today’s lesson is short: avoid exclamation points and question marks in technical writing.