Monday, June 18, 2012

Is Overstating Overrated?

“Do not overstate. When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. 

Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer’s enthusiasm.”

Strunk and White in The Elements of Style

We can always count on Strunk and White to warn of pesky pitfalls, can't we?

Pondering this, I considered misused basics, such as: 

I think Strunk and White would concur; using an abundance of capitalized words for emphasis is not a good thing. 

Indulge my illustrations. :)

Which is better, this:

I KNOW you’ll AGREE with ME when I SAY that we MUST put an END to THESE ATROCITIES.

Or this?

We must stop the atrocities.

I've gotten emails loaded with similar content. The extreme capital emphasis is distracting. My interest in the message wanes, and I feel like I'm being coerced into taking it seriously. 

Making a point is necessary and commendable, but I think it there is a better way, particularly for professional results. As Strunk and White state, overemphasis equals lost impact.

While we're on the subject, how about the

Exclamation Mark!

Is it just me, or does the exclamation mark suffer from overuse too?

Its true purpose, of course, is for commands or exclamations, like:

Stop!                     Hooray!                Wait!                     Halleluiah!                          

It's one thing to use them for informal correspondence, such as emails, texts, and blog comments. But I've noticed their generous use elsewhere, and I wonder, how excitement worthy are these statements? Are we "shouting" when simply stating will do?

One veteran writer's take on the subject advised counting the number of times the exclamation mark is used in a piece. He then said to eliminate all but one, and prudently consider even the lone remainder. He asked, is such emphasis necessary?

Makes me pause before tapping the exclamation mark key, you know? 

I don't have a problem using either of these elements in the right place, but I think balance is essential.

What do you think?

Can you recall any examples of overstating?

Do grammar mishaps jump out and remind you to articulate your prose?
Happy writing,

Copyright 2012. No part of this blog or post may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author, Karen Lange.

Image credit: Stock Exchange svilen001


  1. Too many exclamation points drive me nuts--when I'm reading a book.
    I have to say I use a lot of them in emails though. :-)

  2. Excess exclamation points are something I've had to work on. I am getting better! Oh wait, maybe not.

  3. Yvonne,
    Thank you. I wonder, how does this tie in to the poetry that you write? Do the same rules apply?

    I know, me too. Don't really mind so much with informal stuff, but books, oh my, no. :)

    LOL! Yes, well, we can all use a little practice here and there, I'm sure.


  4. I remember learning about exclamation points--rarely ever ever use them in my writing,

  5. I fall victim to these at times. Great reminders! :O)

  6. When I first started submitting my writing places, I joined a critique by mail group. One of the older, more experienced writers wrote in the margin of one of my stories, "No need to shout." Referring to my use of exclamation points. It's made me double-think the use of them ever since.

  7. I use exclamation points freely in blog comments, e-mails, and facebook posts, but I rarely use them in my story writing.

    Yes, I have found that certain grammar mistakes jump out and me and then I search them out in my own writing. I especially dislike the current use of sentence fragments to create tension. The amount of sentence fragments used this way in books is so large that I know that it's being done on purpose.

  8. Terri,
    I don't use them much in the WIP, but I am surprised to see how much I used them in old writing lessons. I've since gone back through and eliminated most of them. :)

    Me too. When writing quickly, especially, I have a tendency to use too many exclamation marks. Working on that...:)

    I know - it does make you think, doesn't it? Always something to learn, a good thing, I'm thinking.

    Ah, now here's another good point. Now that you mention it, I've seen a lot of fragments in things. And I use them more than I used to. Thanks for the tip. :)


  9. Hi Karen...

    I have been known to capitalize for emphasis but try not to do it as it is irritating. Good to be reminded, though. Have a good Monday. Susan

  10. An avid reader can generally spot and 'overuse', or error, quickly in a story. It's more surprising that those types of things aren't caught in editing.

    I have an enthuastic nephew that peppers his texts with exclaimations but it so fits his personality it isn't irritating.

  11. I use !! very sparingly in my writing. Very. Sparingly. Now they may show up occasionally in a personal email or the odd status update. But I also watch the caps. Folks don't want to be shouted at.

    Sometimes overstating is useful. As in ironic essays. Ahem. :)

    Good stuff, as always, Karen.

  12. Susan,
    I do once in a while too, but not overly so. I knew someone who would do it all the time in emails, but she had a very strong and persuasive personality in person too. It was interesting. :)

    I think you are right. I spot things sometimes and wonder what the editing department was up to that day. :) Texts, I think are excused, especially in the case of enthusiastic nephews. :)

    Yes, you have a good point, the ironic essay, which you know well. :) But that's part of the point of them, right? Thanks, friend.


  13. LOL (or is it "lol"?) :) I tend to overuse exclamation points in blog comments, but I use them sparingly in my books. :)

  14. I definitely abuse exclamation points!!!!!!!!

  15. I've been known to use that poor little Exclamation Mark maybe a little too much ! See I just did it again,lol. Richard from Amish Stories

  16. One thing that took a few years for me to quit doing was using phrases like:

    He said nothing.
    He waited several minutes, then he said, "Blah, blah."
    "Blah, blah," she laughed.

  17. I heard that the use of exclamation points in formal writing showed a lack of professionalism. In my last job at a library, the children's librarian asked me to proofread a letter she was sending out about a special reading program. Her readers would be businesses she was seeking sponsorships from. I called attention to the exclamation point. She said she was trying to show excitement. I then told her what I had been told about it not looking professional. I don't know if she took my advise or not.

  18. I use occasional CAPS, but I do not like explanation points at all.

  19. Sarah,
    I think "lol" can be any way you want it to be! I use them too, in informal stuff, but not much in regular writing.

    I never would have guessed! :D

    I think we all can sometimes if we aren't thinking or careful. And it just depends on what you are doing, you know?

    I think sometimes we do stuff like that and don't even see it after while. I know I do anyway. :)

    I've heard of that too, and now think in those terms. I edit carefully along those lines now, that's for sure. :)

    Me too, Caps, that is, but I guess it's actually more work, isn't it?


  20. Top post Karen - I have to agree with balance being the key :-)

  21. I adore the exclamation point! But, I've learned to curb the tendency.

    Susan :)

    (How many times are we allowed to use a happy face?)

  22. Interesting Tips!
    One of my tutor wrote me a comment on my assignment, "You have overstated your explanations"
    I was confused at first and later I thought, may be I have explained the same idea twice or thrice with different sentence. I was right. I was way too confident about the question and ended up writing more with the same ideas all over again.
    The comment was useful and I think, we should avoid using "overstatements" because we lose the meaning of what we want to convey our message to the readers.

  23. Too many exclamations in a writing put me one edge. I always wonder why the writer is so excited out of proportion to the content.

  24. This is FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!
    (It had to be done)

    But seriously, yes, overstatements have their place--like a teen voice, but other than that, not really.

    Great post :)

  25. Hi Karen .. I know I over use the ! and the ? ... and that

    I daren't use another ! or ? or ...

    I agree capitalisation can take away and distract us ... depending on the seriousness of the work - we should consider distraction.

    A novel, or essay should flow and by definition are well written - eliminating the necessity to draw attention to parts of the work ... they should speak for themselves ..

    So true - cheers Hilary

  26. Thanks for the great tips! I'm an overuser of exclamation marks!


  27. Diane,
    Thank you! :) Balance can be tricky but worth the effort.

    Me too. As for the happy face, well, that might not be as professional, so depending on when you use it...:)

    I agree, and I think that we can lose a reader's trust if we are not careful. Live and learn, right?

    I know, I do too. I think some people just express themselves that way, but for professional writing, I think it's best to be careful.

    Love it! :) Yes, this is true. Objectivity is necessary to assess when and where, you know?

    Well said. I always encourage my teen student to make their words work for them by being careful and efficient.

    You are welcome! I can be too sometimes! lol :)


  28. Strunk and White is packed with good information. Thanks for sharing with us. Grammar issues do leap out at me, especially in newspapers. CAPS and !! aren't a problem for me, but I'm guilty of using the — too often for emphasis.

    I've been enjoying catching up with your posts this morning, Karen.


  29. Oh yeah...

    Please disregard my comment on Thursday's post. Though I meant it from the bottom of my heart, well, you know... ;)

    THANK YOU!!!

  30. Jean,
    I love The Elements of Style, such a handy guide. I've been using a dash lately too and I need to curtail it a bit. Thanks for your kind words!

    I will, no problem at all. Thanks for checking out all the latest posts. You're a peach!


  31. Karen, my biggest gripe with overstating is when the author has already shown my how the character feels through his/her actions or reactions, then goes on to tell me how he/she feels.

  32. It's been a long while since I pulled Elements and Style off the shelf. Too embarrassed to say how long, but you've inspired another read, Karen. Thank you :)

    I love how much encouragement I get when I visit Write Now. Keep up the amazing work. As they say down here... you're one bonza chick. (great gal) xx

  33. Linda,
    I know, I don't care for that either. Something to work not to do when writing fiction, right? :)

    I don't think I've ever been called a bonza chick; I'm flattered! Thanks so much, sweet friend. :)


  34. I remember reading this when I reread Strunk and White a couple of years ago.

    Not overstating is something I had to learn to do from a cultural standpoint. I am American, but was raised in a foreign culture where people don't blink at throwing around superlatives. In fact, if you don't throw around superlatives, it undercuts your conviction in that culture. So it all comes down to considering your audience and what is "normal" to them, I've learned.

    That being said, it's true that we Americans don't want to be bludgeoned over the head with anything. It's part of our beautiful sense of independence and freedom of expression.

    Going to count my exclamation points now...smooches. :-)

  35. Olympic Station,
    Thanks for coming by! Blessings to you as well.

    I keep their book handy on my desk and often refer to it. It's a treasure!



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