The way I write, there’s a hierarchical algorithm that I use to determine what punctuation mark to end a sentence with:
- Is this sentence phrased as a question? If so, question mark. If not, goto 2.
- Is this a sentence that is especially emotional, or that would be better if it seemed emotional? If so, put an exclamation point and goto 3. If not, goto 4.
- Be honest. Does this really need an exclamation point? I mean, really? If so, fine, put an exclamation point if you love them so much. If not, goto 4.
- Use the old trusty default: a period.
(This omits the subalgorithm into which I go if I decide that possibly a semicolon would be merited, but that’s for the best — there’ve been times I stared at three sentences for ages, trying to decide which two deserved to be joined with a semicolon and which would be separated by a period.) The key point here is that for me, all questions get question marks, rhetorical, excited, or otherwise. That’s how I was trained, and that’s how I assumed other people were trained as well.
The reason I bring this up is because it clearly puts me at odds with the Philadelphia Flyers, who, to rouse their fans during the team’s playoff run, had created shirts that said “Why Not Us!” (As background, the basic idea is that the Flyers sucked last year, but they had a really impressive turnaround this year, made the playoffs and beat the numbers 3 and 1 seeds before being annihilated by the Penguins.) For me, that’s non-standard — a question is a question, and questions get question marks. I don’t care if it’s rhetorical or excited, it’s still getting a question mark. I’m fine with an interrobang (!?), but only if the question is asked in an agitated or bewildered way, not merely to indicate excitement or passion, and certainly not to indicate rhetoricality.
But not all agree with my tyranny over the exclamation point. Back in 1915, William Gardner Hale wrote a paper on classifying sentences (which I may discuss in a later post), in which he offhandedly remarked that exclamation points are used to punctuate rhetorical questions. And now, contrary to my precedence for question mark over exclamation point, I’m wondering if others give the exclamation point a bigger role than I do.
So this is my question to you: is why not us! standard or non-standard? Or more to the point: am I justified in making fun of Flyers fans for this? Gosh, I hope so! (It’s worth pointing out that the Penguins fan displaying the shirt misspelled Fleury, so it’s not like we Pittsburghers are perfect either. But at least we’re not from Philadelphia.)
[Also, gosh! As Jonathon noticed, despite its innocence of all things financial, this blog got written up in the Wall Street Journal. This comes on the heels of Jan Freeman discussing the dance attention/attendance idiom from the Amy Vanderbilt post in her column in the Boston Globe (which also runs syndicated in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). So probably I should just quit this blog while I'm ahead.]