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The Law of Exclamation is an Internet axiom arguing that a statement’s validity is called into question by the amount of exclamation points used. While the statement was originally made in reference to chain emails and message board postings, it can be also applied to any text found online.
The use of multiple exclamation points being associated with email hoaxes was noted as early as 1997 in two separate articles published by the IBM research team. The first was uploaded that January and intended as a guide for lay population to be able to identify an email virus hoax. The second was a scientific research paper titled “Hoaxes and Hypes” presented later that year at the 7th Virus Bulletin International Conference held in San Francisco, California.
Throughout his fantasy novel series Discworld, Terry Pratchett uses exclamation points in characters’ dialogue as a method of describing their sanity. In the 11th installment of the series titled Reaper Man, a character is quoted as saying “Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.” In 2007, the book Send tried to implement a new set of style guidelines for email etiquette that encouraged the use of exclamation marks as a way to show appreciation and excitement in text-only situations.
This was debated in a Slate article, which cited esteemed author Elmore Leonard’s suggestion of using no more than two to three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose from a 2001 New York Times article. However, neither of these suggest usage of exclamation points to be indicative of the statement’s validity.
The observation gained significant credibility in March 2008 after FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan voter education project by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, published an article about the validity of chain emails relating to democratic politicians Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton. After finding only 2 of the 31 emails they analyzed contained factual information, author Lori Robertson offered seven tips to look for when reading a suspicious e-mail. One of them addressed the overuse of exclamation points:
The author just loves using exclamation points. If the author had a truthful point to make, he or she wouldn’t need to put two, three, even five exclamation points after every other sentence. In fact, we’re developing another theory here: The more exclamation points used in an e-mail, the less true it actually is. (Ditto for excessive use of capital letters.)
The Law of Exclamation was submitted to Rational Wiki in September 2008. The adage was highlighted in another article by The Telegraph in October 2009 and subsequently picked up by the Democratic Underground forums as well as personal blogs including Michael Savoie.com, Blurred Clarity and Open Parachute. Additionally, the law has also been applied to fake Facebook profiles and hotel reviews.
The overuse of exclamation points in email has also been discussed on the Guardian, GOOD, the Boston Globe and PR Daily, but none of these stories implicate the amount of punctuation in a sentence with the likelihood of it being a hoax.
Democratic Underground – Internet rules and laws: the top 10, from Godwin to Poe
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