The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.12.13

Rob Walker

Let’s Make A Mark

In a recent interview over our dining room table, Ellen Susan revealed, exclusively to me, her latest epiphany: The obvious need for a new punctuation mark.

The underlying problem is of course overuse of the traditional exclamation mark in the email/social network era, to the extent that the meaning of this venerable symbol has been severely undermined. I can recall coming across advice when I was in college in the late 1980s suggesting that it was permissible to use an exclamation mark once every twenty years or so. Today I probably type one every twenty minutes. I’m not doing so in published work, naturally, but rather in email: “Thanks!” “Congrats!” “See you soon!” It’s not just me. Even as I was writing this paragraph, I got a  note from a highly erudite editor of a widely respected literary/cultural journal: “You are too kind!”

I actually hadn’t been kind to any excitable-making extent in the missive he was responding to. But we both knew that. Consider a non-exclamation-point version of my correspondent’s message: “You are too kind.” That reads dry, chilly, possibly even sarcastic. Which suggests how the function of the exclamation mark has changed: It no longer connotes remarkable enthusiasm; it just signals a sort of general friendliness and baseline cheer, the equivalent of saying “Howyadoin?” in a chipper voice.

This is precisely why, as Ellen argues, we need a new punctuation mark that resides in the emotional range between the just-the-facts period and the whoop-to-do excitability of the exclamation point. While the new mark would clearly signal positivity, it would save us from communicating with the unhinged emotionality of a note slipped between junior-high students.


An ElRey Mark, by Ellen Susan

So having spotted this need, Ellen promptly designed a new mark herself. She calls her proposed solution an ElRey Mark. This refers to the name of our former dog, a highly dignified chow who was a master at communicating feeling with graceful understatement. Using the Spanish words for “the king” also suggests that an ElRey connotes comfortable mastery of protocol and politesse, intertwined with a steadfast refusal to raise one’s voice unless something is on fire. Visually, it borrows the Spanish-language double-deployment of ¡exclamation! marks, but combines the two symbols to suggest roughly half the level of exclaiming: precisely the new measurement we need.

ElRey Mark usage, rendered in Hoefler Text

The most difficult aspect of E’s suggestion — creating an entirely new mark that would have to be adapted into every font in existence and every keyboard hereinafter devised — is also my favorite aspect. There are endless of examples of small-bore meaning-hacks applied to existing characters in the digital-writing era: @, #, emoticons in general, etc. But surely the massive underlying shift in textual communication that we’ve lately experienced deserves to be memorialized in some more definitive way than those examples. And I can’t think of a more genuinely useful addition to the way we punctuate now than the ElRey. I wish I could use one to end this sentence, but I can’t — yet!