Saturday, May 21, 2016

Excitement! Not!

It was a typical call with a customer service agent, and as with so many things these days, it was conducted online. Companies love this: chatting agents typically handle 3 simultaneous conversations, resulting in a 50% savings over traditional one-on-one phone assistance. Customers like it too: they usually get through faster, and have a record of the interaction. And if you're like many others (me included) you can resolve many simple problems without having to (shudder) talk to a real person.

In my case, I had had an issue with a new phone, and had gotten a replacement. But they forgot to include a return label for the broken one, so I went online to get it. I was connected quickly, and routed to someone pecking away in Sioux Falls or Hyderabad or Manila. I explained what I wanted, and "Jonathan" responded: "I completely understand how important it can be to return your phone! I can assure you that you've came to the right place! I will do everything that I can to help you today!"

Now, I'm glad he was being enthusiastic: it's better than the alternative. And I'm sure he was trained to be initially upbeat with customers. But where I was it was a Sunday morning before 10AM. And all I can say is that it was good our exchange was in writing. Had he brought that level of intensity to a spoken conversation, I would have hung up immediately.

Still, I was a little surprised when he continued in the same vein: "I truly am sorry about this! I can absolutely get you the shipping label sent to you!" Johnathan, chill: it's just a label. I gave him the account info, he went away for a bit, then returned: "I've just sent the return label and instructions to you! You should have them in your mailbox within a few days!" Tone aside, it was an efficient exchange, and I thanked him for his assistance. I just wish he'd put down the coffee: "Thank you so much for chatting with me! I do hope that you have an amazing day!" After I signed off, I had to go take a nap.

You can blame social media. The way we write online has changed thanks (or no thanks) to Twitter, Instagram and the like. And it's spawned weird abbreviations, unusual constructions, and yes, lots of exclamation points. On this last topic, writer Beth Dunn and illustrator Tyler Littwin have created a great flow chart. It starts with three questions: Is it hugely important? Is it super exciting? Is it an actual emergency? In most cases, the answers to the questions lead to one inevitable conclusion: no.

The Brits have gone so far as to enshrine the "proper" approach in the pedagogy for younger kids. New Department for Education instructions for those assessing the writing of seven-year-olds has decreed that an exclamation mark will be deemed to have been correctly used only if the child has begun the sentence with "How" or "What" and used "the syntax of an exclamation." So "What a lovely day!" and "How exciting!" are smashing. But it's a narrow runway: "A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation."

While that might put a crimp in the tweeting and texting by good little UK boys and girls, the kids do have a defense that is, well, sterling. After all, one of the things they are likely studying are the greats of English literature. And there is considered no higher paragon than the bard himself, William Shakespeare. So how would the Whitehall guardians of sentence structure deal with a little seven-year-old Billy S. from Stratford-upon-Avon, who writes, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" Or maybe, "Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow." Or "Out, damned spot! out, I say!"

Bad Billy, they would say. But elsewhere the Sweet Swan of Avon did conform to the rules. In a passage in "Much Ado about Nothing," he started with a "what," ended with an exclamation mark and followed the correct syntax. So maybe he had the bureaucrats in mind when he wrote, "O, what dare men do! What men may do!" As he himself might say (and formatted correctly) "What doth utter rubbish thou is!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words and sentences! His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

1 comment:

KwerkyKat said...

Does anyone, beside myself, feel susceptible to social pressure when it comes to email or text conversations with an over punctuater? (I don't care if "punctuater" is not a word, spell check!) (I really meant that "!") Anyhow, when I am conversing with someone who is using many !!!s, I feel compelled to be at least equally excited and use more !!!s than necessary. I suppose this points to a certain weakness in my character, but, hey(!), I didn't start the over punctuating...