You done messed up, Jeopardy!
I don’t like shouting, and I didn’t want to emphasize that sentence with an exclamation point. I really didn’t. But you had a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and you blew it with a disastrous decision.
While changing the host, you kept Jeopardy!’s exclamation point. That means I just had to ram an innocent, hardworking apostrophe with an italicized exclamation point — something no one should be forced to do.
Cycling through 16 guest hosts in a made-for-TV audition, you were bound to upset someone. By picking Mike Richards -- who, amid a cascade of scandals, stepped down before he even started -- you upset most of the people.
But you could have made everyone happy — and softened the blow of picking a totally forgettable dude-burger to host the most vaunted franchise on television — by doinking that unnecessary punctuation mark off your logo.
Instead, Jeopardy! remains, exclamation intact. Awkward and horrible.
The fact that exclamation points are so in-your-face belies their uselessness. They might not be as stupid as brackets, which are just stodgier parentheses, or braces, which, unless you’re a computer programmer, have no function whatsoever. But there’s no quicker way to bloodlessly juice up lazy writing than with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation points. They distract the reader — especially when they’re unexpected, as in Jeopardy! — thereby inhibiting readability. In short, they make us dumber.
The British call them exclamation marks rather than exclamation points, which is appropriate, since they tend to blight the page more often than they make an actual point. “Excessive use of exclamation marks is … one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer,” Henry Watson Fowler wrote in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Philosopher Herbert Spencer said in 1862, “The lowest form of language is the exclamation.”
Or take it from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
To quote an inveterate exclamation pointer: Sad!
It’s a shame, because Jeopardy! was on a roll. Last week season 37 wrapped with an impressive 18-game win streak by Matt Amodio, who infuriated legions of loyal Jeopardy! viewers by responding to nearly every clue with, “What’s … ?” regardless of whether the correct response was a person or something else (e.g., “What’s Grohl?” instead of “Who is Dave Grohl?”). His signature move even prompted the Jeopardy! overlords to issue an article clarifying that the strategy was not, in fact, cheating; it was just, like that punctuation mark, awkward.
Even though mild-mannered Amodio’s move is ungrammatical, it’s smart and functional. He’s explained that by not thinking about which interrogative to use and defaulting to what every time, he reserves necessary brain power for coming up with the right response.
Moreover, despite what Microsoft Word’s inane grammatical suggestions say, contractions are fabulous. They’re efficient, they’re concise, and they’re one of the uses of apostrophes that’s hard to screw up. In Jeopardy!, where precious seconds can determine whether you finish every clue on the board, the difference between what’s and what is can be measured in dollars.
Unfortunately, even Amodio’s novel game play couldn’t affect a superfluous punctuation mark. It’s a reminder that Jeopardy! is, like everything else on television, a commodity that exists to make money, not a tool to make us smarter. If they’d tried to break away from that just once? That kind of exclamation would have really made a point.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and ecphonemes to email@example.com.