THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING WHAT’S IMPORTANT
A WORD ABOUT USING EXCLAMATION POINTS: Don’t. At least, not often. Let your narrative convey excitement, even in dialogue, when the speaker is saying something terribly important, such as, “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed.”
Why? Because if you use an exclamation point at the end of an important sentence— “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed!”—and then something even more important happens—”They are entering the Schmerdlings’ house, which is next door!!”—you’ll have to use two exclamation points; and by the time the Giant Leeches from Space have drained the blood from all five Schmerdlings and their housekeeper and their Great Dane, have munched on a cluster of field mice, and have started dismantling the window of the nursery where your 18-month-old triplets just fell asleep, the exclamation points alone will have consumed two black-ink cartridges—unless you’re using a different color, maybe “Merlot,” but somehow I don’t see you fiddling with color schemes during emergencies, especially the critically important ones.
Punctuation with Friends
THE POPULAR GAME WORDS WITH FRIENDS has a dictionary all its own. For some reason, it includes quite a few Scots and Welsh words. In any case, success is largely trial and error. When I accidentally spell an actual word—GLED, in this case—I look it up in the WWF dictionary; I might want to use it again. I am informed that GLED “is a valid Words with Friends word.”
This happens all the time in WWF. It’s okay. I got my 48 points, so to my mind the subject is closed—unless I really want to know the meaning, in which case I Google the word. I sometimes pause to imagine a place where only “valid Words with Friends words” are spoken—”AARRGH! GLED HOOKME, AAL! TEUGH WHEEP. TREX?”—but then I let it go and move on.
But Words with Friends isn’t finished. After defining GLED as “a valid Words with Friends word,” it apologizes:
Sorry, no definition is available at this time!
Really! You don’t say! What a curious spot for an exclamation point! Might want to save your excitement till you’re ready to announce that, yes, at last, a definition has become available!
AS SOON AS I LEARNED TO READ, I started devouring the comic strips in the evening and Sunday newspapers, including the lame ones (Henry, Nancy) and the ones that went way over my head (Pogo, the Katzenjammer Kids). I never understood why, in many of the strips, all the characters seemed to be shouting, all the time. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, even if it was a question. “Hello!” “How are you?!” “Not so good!” “Oh!” “What’s up with you?!” “Not much!” “I see!”
In one vintage comic strip, Mary Worth—a kindly widow who was at least 50 when she was born, which puts her somewhere in her 130s—is wearing a dowdy hat and white cotton gloves, her brow furrowed in what I take to be a worried expression. Clearly, she is getting ready to go somewhere on a matter of grave importance.
The doorbell rings. Mary opens the door, and there, weeping, looking wretched but perfectly coiffed, is her attractive but despondent young friend Elaine, or Jeannine, or Delilah, who suspects that her husband is cheating on her but who has been in denial since 1955. (I was only 8 years old when I started reading Mary Worth, but it was pretty clear to me that Elaine, Jeannine, and Delilah were all married to the same worthless piece-of-shit traveling salesman.)
ELAINE: Mrs. Worth! You’re wearing your white gloves and goofy hat with a black net veil that makes it look like spiders are crawling on your forehead! You must be going out!
MARY: Yes, Elaine! I have an appointment with Dr. Edgemont!
ELAINE: Dr. Edgemont! The distinguished and handsome heart surgeon with a mysterious past! Mrs. Worth, are you all right?! Is something wrong with your heart?!
MARY: I’m fine, Elaine! Never better! As you can see, I have plenty of money though I’ve never worked a day in my life! I’m seeing a heart surgeon merely to pass the time! But I don’t have to leave right this minute! Do you have news about your faithless husband, Trent, who was seen trysting at L’Intimité with Delilah?! Please come in!
The people who wrote the Mary Worth comic strip evidently wanted us to think that what Mary and her friend were saying was critically important—more important than what Dr. Rex Morgan and his attractive nurse, June Gale, were discussing in the adjacent comic strip. In retaliation, Rex and June had to start exclaiming everything, too. The last time I read Li’l Abner, I noticed that every sentence ended with two exclamation points.
Of course, they were all competing with real adventure comics—Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, and others, in which stuff actually happened—kidnappings, plane crashes, bank robberies—whereas, in Mary Worth, it took an entire week to get Elaine from the doorstep to the living-room sofa and another week to find out if she took cream in her coffee. The only actual plot movement in Mary Worth; Rex Morgan, M.D.; Winnie Winkle; and other soap-opera-type series occurred in the Sunday funnies, when the strips were in color and occupied a third of a page instead of a few inches next to the crossword puzzle. With all that color and activity and dialogue, the shouting rose to a din!!!!
Act now! Operators are standing by!
I HAVE IN FRONT OF ME A POSTCARD from the University of Arizona Alumni Association. It contains numerous sentences but no exclamation points. Nevertheless, I know that this is One Frigging Important Postcard. For one thing, it’s bright yellow. But besides that, just above my address there is a box with a wide black border surrounding the words—which are in bold capital letters—IMPORTANT ALUMNI VERIFICATION NOW DUE. On the other side is another box containing the words CONFIRMATION NECESSARY.
Dear Mrs. Campbell [the postcard reads], More than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni we’ve spoken with in regard to the verification project have made important revisions to their alumni data. This is the reason I urge you to call 1-866-555-5555 today.
If the postcard said, “Last year, more than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni ate mayonnaise. This is the reason I urge you to call…” it would make the same amount of sense. I can almost hear my dear mother’s voice: “Mary, if 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?”
But wait! There’s more!! “It’s critically important [the paragraph continues] to talk with each University of Arizona graduate.”
Critically important for me to talk with each U of A graduate? Or for Melinda B—, the Alumni Association president, whose name appears at the bottom of the postcard? Either way, I’m sort of busy. My toddler is spraying toilet-bowl cleaner on the cat, and a glop of the foam is on the finger she’s about to stick into her own nose. Is it okay if I take care of that before I call 1-866-555-5555? Although… Wow! I don’t know…. There’s another box around some bold type—upper and lower case, but the letters are HUGE—asking me nicely to “Please call 1-866-555-5555 (toll-free) to take care of this important matter today.” Still no exclamation point, but those letters are pretty big, and Melinda does say it’s important, and… Oh! Toll-free. Well, then. I’ll call 911 right now, and by the time the EMTs get here I’ll have finished talking to Melinda.
What’s in it for me?
ACTUALLY, I WON’T BE TALKING TO MELINDA but to someone at a company called Publishing Concepts, “a trusted partner of the University of Arizona Alumni Association.” This means that the Alumni Association has paid an obscene sum to an outside firm to compose this ill-judged attempt to coerce me into making a donation—ill-judged because (a) in 20 years I’ve never given the U of A Alumni Association a dime, and (b) the postcard is worse than a waste of time, ink, and yellow card stock; it’s offensive, and I’m not easily offended.
Ten years have passed since my last mammogram, and this yellow postcard that pretends to be from the University of Arizona Alumni Association but is mailed from Dallas, Texas, is telling me what’s critically important? No.
- “Critically important” is cleaning up the water supply in Flint, Michigan.
- “Critically important” is talking someone down from a suicide attempt.
- My mammogram is important, but I’d hardly say it’s critical.
Calling 1-866-555-5555 doesn’t even make my list of “things to do after I’ve read every book in the library, painted my house, sterilized the switch-plate covers, ironed all my clothes and hung them in the closet sorted by color, and achieved world peace.”
Even if you allow that vulgar marketing instruments have their uses and you judge the yellow postcard against similar solicitations rather than the Bible or Macbeth, the yellow postcard violates the first rule of marketing:
Tell me what’s in it for me.
Melissa, or whoever, gives me no incentive to comply. Do I care that 80 percent of my fellow alums have updated their information? Is it in my interest to “ensure that the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory project is completely accurate and up to date”?
Even if such perfection were possible, for all I care the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory can be printed entirely in classical Latin. If it were, I’d buy it, just to see the phone numbers. Mine would be CDXXII-DCCXIX-MMCXXXIII.
The marketing drones who wrote my yellow postcard aren’t completely stupid, because they know that so many things are clamoring for our attention, claiming to be important, that if we have no clear purpose we might not rely on our own judgment. If they can convince us, even for a minute, that calling 1-866-555-5555 is more important than locking up the toxic household chemicals or taking our kids to the park or meditating or whatever it is that we know we should do but feel we don’t have time for, then they’ve got a good shot at getting our annual donation, which is what they really want. And if they’d just say so, I might cooperate. When I feel that they’re trying to deceive me, it just puts my back up.
VI; ILI; DI; Magnum, PI; mud in your eye; etc.
WE HAVE A SITUATION—I won’t even call it a problem—with language that I call verbal inflation or, when I want it to sound important, inflated linguistic importance (ILI). ILI occurs when words, phrases, and, yes, punctuation marks (often in combination with type styles) are overused and lose their shape, like old shoes, or lose their sharpness, like my mother’s expensive sewing shears that my brother and I always “borrowed” for cutting paper, which (according to my mother) dulled the blades, making the scissors unusable for sewing.
There really was a time when, to indicate that something was important, we simply said it was important. Now we add modifying words and phrases (“critically,” “extremely,” “beyond the reach of human understanding”), set the words in bold-face capital letters, italicized for good measure, and wrap them in a box.
Any more, to call a woman “pretty” is almost an insult. So, what did you think of my new girlfriend? She’s pretty. Pretty? Just pretty? Okay, she’s gorgeous. How gorgeous? Really gorgeous. Really, really, seriously, downright frigging, drop-dead, hose-me-down-and-hang-me-out-to-dry gorgeous.
The flip side of ILI, which I call disastrous insinuation [DI], is exemplified by the following:
Dear Ms. Campbell: Your recent MRI showed a small mass, called an incidentaloma, above your right kidney. The radiologist who read the MRI described the mass as “anomalous” and commented, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder what it is.” If you’re wondering the same thing, you could try calling our office at your convenience to get on a waiting list to make an appointment for follow-up with one of our physicians or nurse practitioners. Good luck with that.
This sort of communication never arrives on a yellow postcard. Usually it comes in a plain white envelope. Half of these letters probably get mistaken for bills or solicitations and tossed in the recycling. You do recycle, right? Because you should. It’s critically important.
Do what you love
MY SISTER HAS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. She still recognizes me, and we have conversations that might appear normal to others, until they notice that it’s really just one conversation over and over, but my sister and I have a good time. She used to be a professional organizer. She wrote a book called Ready, Set, Organize. (I was coauthor of the second edition. That’s how important I am.)
In Ready, Set, Organize, she describes the technique she used with consistent success. Briefly, it works like this:
Before you can organize your schedule and your stuff, you have to define your values. When you figure out what’s important to you, and you develop goals and objectives around those values, only then can you make sensible, productive decisions about your time and your space. Without that structure, everything seems important, and the loudest and most persistent demands get the greatest share of attention. Whatever you’re doing, you have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something else, and you never really relax. You might even find yourself calling 1-866-555-5555 and giving money to a total stranger in Dallas, Texas, while your child eats toilet-bowl cleaner and Giant Leeches from Space devour your next-door neighbors.
So if you want take control of your life and gain mastery of your schedule, I suggest that you start by eliminating exclamation points. Just don’t use them. If nothing else, you’ll save on ink.
EDDIE IZZARD ON IMPORTANT COMMUNICATIONS (from “Wikipedia and iTunes,” Live at Madison Square Garden (2011), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1ug9-rhSs4)
You’re tip-tapping away and the thing comes up and it says Would you like a software update? And you go Yeah! I don’t see why not.
Would you like to know details of the software update? And you go No! Or sometimes you go Yeah! … But before you can get the update, it says Sign a new agreement with iTunes.
… I have signed many agreements with iTunes. I don’t know what they want from us any more. Don’t they know we agree with them? They must be paranoid at iTunes, going We must ask them again, one more time, if they really, truly… we’ve asked them thirty-eight times, but one more time, just to make sure that they agree with us.
And they have made us liars. You cannot reprimand your children. No, Johnny, you said you didn’t have a biscuit but there’s crumbs all over your face and you did have a biscuit. You have lied.
[Johnny replies] But you said you had read the terms and conditions when you clicked that box, but it’s too quick for you to have read the terms and conditions.
The truth is, no one in this room has read the terms and conditions. No one in New York has read the terms and conditions. No one in the universe… even God has not read the terms and conditions. That’s probably the big gap between the beginning of the earth and when we effing turned up. He was reading the terms and conditions of the thing he just made.
Anything could be in the terms and conditions. We will take your buttocks and sell them to the Chinese…. We’re going to rearrange your toes and number them…. We’re going to put your underpants in hedges around the… and you get to the point where you want the update. You didn’t know what it was, but now you want the… Now give me the effing update! And then you get the update.
And nothing has changed.