88

We all had that one email that contained a phrase similar to these examples:

Where are my files??????????

Or:

I am not sure this is a good idea!!!!!!!!!

I normally want to point out one of the following things to the person sending such a mail:

  • The amount of question marks has no impact on how serious I take an inquiry.

  • Most mail apps have a box they can check in order to show that they believe their mail is high priority.

  • That I imagine them as a screeching chimpanzee who is smashing his/her keyboard while I read their mail.

I have seen this from all sorts of people, from subordinates to C-level executives.

I consider this to be the written equivalent of screaming to somebody. I find it rude, unprofessional and uncalled for.

How do I point this out politely?

I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, but I am also worried that they communicate this way to others, i.e. (potential) clients.

  • 2
    If it's a subordinate, reply to their e-mail, highlight the offending copious punctuation and just respond with "Really?" – sleddog Mar 7 '17 at 19:46
  • Saying "Where are my files" in an email, regardless of how many question marks were used, sounds rude. If this came from a C-level executive then you had better answer quickly because odds are great that they are trying to accomplish something important and regardless of your feelings they still need whatever resource they have requested. If this comes from someone not above you then "Please elaborate." is a perfectly legitimate initial response. – MonkeyZeus Mar 7 '17 at 21:02
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    Is it true that the number of question marks has no impact on how seriously you take it? If you imagine them as a screaming chimpanzee smashing their keyboard, it sounds like they make you take it less seriously. I would, too. – David Conrad Mar 7 '17 at 21:18
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    Often people add quotes to their email signature, you could add 'Multiple exclamation marks,' he went on, shaking his head, 'are a sure sign of a diseased mind.' - Terry Pratchett (wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Multiple_exclamation_marks) – user3559247 Mar 8 '17 at 3:37
  • 3
    Quote Terry Pratchett. "'Multiple exclamation marks,' he went on, shaking his head, 'are a sure sign of a diseased mind.'" (Eric) -- Even better yet, obtain a copy of the book, highlight the quote, bookmark the page, and leave the book by the coffee machine. People will be curious, pick it up, read the quote.... – DevSolar Mar 8 '17 at 9:37
125

I consider this to be the written equivalent of screaming to somebody. I find it rude, unprofessional and uncalled for.

How do I point this out (politely)?????!!!??

Unless your role in the company is teaching workers how to improve their writing, then you don't.

If you do hold that role, then lunchtime sessions might help. (Some places where I have worked had voluntary "brown bag" learning sessions during lunch.) You could present something like "Effective emails" or "Business punctuation" and actually teach the subject without pointing out violators individually.

If you are a manager and the sender works for you then you can bring this up in a weekly one-on-one meeting. Something like "Your emails can be more effective if we work on tuning up your punctuation. Let me show you how." to start with. Then you politely show some examples where a single exclamation point or question mark should have been used. Such coaching is part of a manager's role.

But for C-level executives and other non-subordinate coworkers, you don't attempt to correct their communications. Doing so risks being labeled the office Grammar Nazi - that's not a good thing to hang around your neck. Instead, just ignore it and demonstrate proper grammar and punctuation in your replies.

We all have our pet peeves. For some, that is punctuation, For others it might be spelling, the choice of office attire, perfumes/colognes, eating at your desk, loud talking or other noises, etc, etc. If you search The Workplace for phrases like "How do I deal with a coworker who..." you will see them all.

But trying to bend others to conform to your idea of "proper" isn't always wise. Imagine if everyone in the office constantly tried to correct everyone else's actions. (Imagine if you were the one being corrected for something a coworker was peevish about.)

For many folks the only thing more rude, unprofessional, and uncalled for than excessive punctuation, is nagging about excessive punctuation.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Mar 8 '17 at 12:24
  • 2
    I would agree with this answer from the perspective of "pet peeves" but if grammar or terse wording of an email causes the communication to come across as rude or mean-spirited then I think that absolutely should be communicated to this individual's manager (preferably through the offended individual's own management structure). If a coworker can be offended by this individual's communications then what happens when that person is communicating with a client? – DanK Mar 8 '17 at 13:11
43

There is a nice, one-size-fits-all approach.

Hi

Your email was spam filtered, I nearly missed it. I think it might be the excessive punctuation, this being the only thing that sets it apart.

Next time, if it's urgent, can you make sure to use the "urgent" flag and leave the extra punctuation out? Otherwise I might miss it in the spam box.

Thanks

The only risk with this approach is that IT might not back you up. You may need to pre-bribe them.

EDIT

As is being discussed at great length, there is potential blowback on this one, and it will depend heavily on your company culture. Joe has a much better answer (correct subordinates, live with it for superiors, advise others).

However, and it's a big however, should your company be strolling toward any kind of situation where a due dilligence audit might take place, this needs to be nipped in the bud. A count of punctuation marks should not be used to determine level of priority, and the lack of legitimate process would be cause for concern.

  • 14
    Send back your response with 10 times more punctuation, make them see how stupid it looks. – Snowlockk Mar 6 '17 at 14:58
  • 37
    This seems very passive-aggressive – nardnob Mar 6 '17 at 22:13
  • 29
    I don't believe lying to the person is a good strategy. – Nacht Mar 6 '17 at 22:21
  • 24
    This is between lying, sarcastic and passive aggressive. All in all the effect is to escalate a total nonsituation into an actual situation. – user42272 Mar 7 '17 at 1:08
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    -1 I'm disappointed by how many people seem to support lying to a coworker in order to manipulate them into adhering to your own arbitrary email standards. Excessive punctuation IS annoying, but this is thoroughly unprofessional behavior. – ThunderGuppy Mar 7 '17 at 22:16
30

We all have our pet peeves and we all have our weaknesses. I have a client who uses question marks at the end of sentences and not at the end of questions.

It appears to fail when I click the button?

And

Is there any way we can add this to the next release.

It used to make me crazy. I would read the sentences out to anyone who was nearby. I would demand of the air "how is that a question?". I would count how many of these occurred in a single email. I would point out contradictions. But never in all that time did I say anything to the client. It would be pointless; the emails were comprehensible, after all, and adults rarely change this sort of thing just because someone else pointed out a different opinion.

These days I laugh when I get one of those emails. I know what the client means. While it's possible to interpret it as rude, that doesn't help me live my life or do my job. I just laugh at how a grown adult (who can presumably tie shoes and drive a car) can't work punctuation marks. Same in your case. It's not really that urgent, or they'd have used the urgent flag, or included sentences like "I really need this for the morning" in the email. They just use more punctuation than you do. Laugh. They aren't doing it at you and it isn't about you. Read the words in the email and move on.

  • I'd rather read a question mark at the end of a regular sentence than hear one ;) – NKCampbell Mar 7 '17 at 2:54
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    Actually, that's uptalk, it's really common, and it doesn't indicate questioning or uncertainty. And men actually do it more than women, and people in charge more than subordinates. itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002967.html . But that's rather off topic for this question and answer. – Kate Gregory Mar 7 '17 at 3:13
  • 4
    I actually do this a lot with question marks. Usually the question marks on sentences mean, "I might be wrong about this; please, feel free to challenge or confirm this statement." There is no direct question when I do this and sometimes people get offended if I straight out say, "Your code doesn't work." The period example just clearly gives the only acceptable answer in sentence itself. If spoken, there'd be no inflection. Monotone mob boss: will you cut Jimmy's fingertips off before you bury him? He's not really asking, though... It's not asking for an answer. – gloomy.penguin Mar 7 '17 at 18:31
  • I sometimes view punctuation as musical notes... they can show pauses, lengths of pauses, tone, what part of a sentence or word is stressed, etc. In most inter-office communication I prefer to type as I naturally speak because so much personality/emotion/emphasis can be lost with written word. Excessive punctuation is absolutely distressing but I feel creatively, effectively placed punctuation is helpful. I am the kind of person who might break out regex in an email, though, if it's the most concise way to explain something. – gloomy.penguin Mar 7 '17 at 18:41
  • The sentence with a question mark is looking for an answer "Yes, you are correct that the failure is related to clicking that button (I will fix it/send it to someone to fix)." The question without a question mark is a polite way of giving you an order, they are not looking for you to respond with 'yes', so no ? is needed. They are saying "Look for a way to make this happen and let me know if you fail." – Scott Mar 8 '17 at 2:49
12

The best way to approach these things, as always, is with humor.

Original Sender: Where are my files??????????

You, Possible Answer 01: I found them!!!!!!! They're inside the computer!!!!!

You, Possible Answer 02: I don't know?!?!?! Shall I help you find them?!?!?!

Zoolander jokes aside, I think if you responded to them with humor in kind (as you had done so here in your post), the other person would get the point.

For example, see this answer here, similar in that these are both addressing pet peeves.

(I only call this a pet peeve since it's something you feel personally. I am not passing judgment on whether it's warranted, though, for what it's worth, I do :).)

However, as you have posted Poe's Law, I would have to add that I would only advocate this solution for those with whom you have at least some rapport or those lateral or subordinate to you.

For those who are above you or who might not know not to take you seriously, I would just be frank and candid about it, using I-messages:

Hi, sorry, I found your files, but I just wanted to ask if you could please refrain from using so many question marks and exclamation marks in the future.

It feels a bit like yelling and even if you had not marked the question with so many question marks, I would have taken you seriously and dealt with the situation urgently.

Meanwhile, if you want to convey that this email is urgent, there is also the option to change the email's urgency to "High Priority," in which case, I'd get the same message.

Thanks and sorry for bothering you with this.

Whichever way you choose, owning the pet peeve and making it work for you by thanking the person and apologizing for inconveniencing them is the position of strength.

What do you think? Do either of these options work for you?

If it helps, I just used the second approach the other day with my own boss.

We have a good enough rapport that I hadn't needed to say so much and had only needed to state my request and it had been effective, but also, in part because I think that she herself was willing to acknowledge the request and make the change.

  • 1
    Responding with humour is a good idea for your own amusement, but people don't always get it. – colmde Mar 8 '17 at 12:00
  • @colmde, heh, yes, which is why this had been a two-part answer. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 8 '17 at 12:08
  • @colmde, also, responding with humor is to defuse a situation that could become personal, not for personal amusement. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 9 '17 at 8:01
4

In addition to what Joe Strazzere said: The punctuation (and writing style) may actually give you additional information. If the writer normally doesn't use excessive punctuation it can tell you that the writer is in an emotional "autopilot" mode because they have to deal with that they perceive as a crisis or are simply stressed out. A "system 1" situation, if you want to use Kahneman's terminology. They aren't in a mood to hear grammar corrections and lecturing them about punctuation will fall on deaf ears plus it will annoy them. So nothing to gain for you by focusing on the grammar issue.

What you can gain is a warning indicator that the person at the other end may be in a not-so-rational state and you need to tread carefully. Keep a level head - because the other side can't at the moment, for whatever (possibly legitimate!) reason. Since keeping a level head is (almost) always appropriate, nothing is lost.

Assess the issue's priority independently and rationally (e.g. coming from your boss vs. from some random person on the internet without a support contract, e.g. "the building is on fire!!!!!!" vs. "I can't look at my cat pics!!!!!!"). If you deem it important enough to work on, try to figure out what they need and not so much what they literally ask for or want. Try offering them that and see if they accept it. If you don't think it's important enough, steer clear - don't aggravate them by lecturing.

If somebody is in "system 1 state", they may need to be handled similar to a child in a friendly, polite, gentle but firm manner. I don't mean to say that you can dismiss anything they (or a child) says - you've got to respect them, you just can't take everything they say seriously or literally. The excessive punctuation can be your "state 1" warning sign.

I know that this doesn't answer the question posed but I hope it's useful for the OP anyway.

  • @JoeStrazzere In my experience, there's certainly a correlation between asking questions with little context and lots of punctuation (as opposed to the other way round) and a heightened emotional state (anger, frustration, stress, whatever). Just like there's a correlation between people shouting at the top of their voice in a business setting and a heightened emotional state. Doesn't mean that it's always the case but it helps to take the possibility into account. YMMV. – AllTheKingsHorses Mar 7 '17 at 17:13
  • @JoeStrazzere And I wouldn't advise others to assume that an... unconventional punctuation style is always a matter of habit. In the end, it's probably easy for the OP to figure out what is the case after seeing a couple of emails from a writer. If all mails have excessive punctuation, your assumption applies. If not, the OP can consider why it happens sometimes. – AllTheKingsHorses Mar 7 '17 at 17:55
1

I have read previous questions where mostly are against or they don't suggest try to teach or correct the people who communicates in this ways. I kind of disagree.


If the person who send you a email is one who you have some kind of interaction: coworker, friend, etc, you can politely teach them to use just one punctuation marks. The sample applies to someone who send messages/chat, etc with uppercase.

If the person is a client, or someone where you're not sure how they will react, or someone you don't want to involve in that matter, just try to ignore and answer politely the matter of the subject.

Some poeple just don't understand that, for example, writing in uppercase is considered by the reader as you're screaming, but once you try to teach them, mostly will understand and no longer repeat such way to communicate.

tl;dr: If you consider teach them, do it politely, otherwise, ignore the rules (or the way they use for express their points) and focus on the matter.

  • None of the answers, so far, have mentioned that the practice might cause spotted owls to lose their habitat. In some, admittedly infrequent, cases the extra characters would add a page (more than one in egregious cases) to the length of a printed copy, using more paper, using more trees. – stretch Mar 7 '17 at 14:32
  • @stretch, I'm not familiar with the expression about owls (but I think I can understand it). My answer was based for the expressions like "Grammar Nazi" quote: Doing so risks being labeled the office Grammar Nazi. I have similar experiences in a poetry group in Facebook in which I participated (and when I was in school, I wrote always in uppercase), oh, and in some question and answers in Stack Overflow (in English and Spanish too) so, this is just my two cents :) – Mauricio Arias Olave Mar 7 '17 at 14:38
  • @stretch nahh. This sort of puntuation (excessive bangs & qmarks) goes at the end of the line but even the most exclamatory/confused writer won't go over a line. It adds more toner/ink which might have ozone ramifications, but not more paper. The owls are fine. – mcalex Mar 7 '17 at 19:25
  • 1
    I recommend not using gender-specific pronouns ("him") in a situation like this where we're not referring to a specific person with a known gender. "His/her" (like the OP used) or "their" are perfectly acceptable and more inclusive. – Greg Martin Mar 8 '17 at 0:39
  • 1
    That's okay—your mastery of English is far better than my skill in a second language! Thank you for hearing my feedback. – Greg Martin Mar 8 '17 at 17:17
0

You contact the person responsible for the grammar in your business. It could be HR or PR. The main thing is not to say how you are annoyed and hate this stuff, but how it reflects badly on the image of the company.

For your clients, just deal with it. Unless you are an image consultancy, but even then I would not directly contact the person that is the issue, but the person responsible for the grammar in the client organisation.

  • 3
    That used to be me. My business card read "David Wallace - person responsible for the grammar". It was great to be able to take the burden of being grammatical away from everyone else in the company. – Dawood ibn Kareem Mar 7 '17 at 9:45
  • @DavidWallace I mean that in a bigger company there can be some person in HR/PR for whom this might belong to. It can be that HR might develop peoples writing skills, including grammar by sending them to courses. Or it might be that there is a person in PR responsible for how the workers of that company appear to public including the communication. There can be multiple roles for which the grammar belongs. – user3644640 Mar 7 '17 at 9:57
0

The answer, "You don't," has been given and is valid.

But it's missing the other half of the equation:

Address the other problems with the email.

For example, not including sufficient detail to be possible to answer. I'll bet 10 to 1 odds that such emails do not only suffer from overuse of punctuation.

Be polite, professional, and point out the waste of time that is caused.

Where are my files??????????

Response (to a senior):

Dear John,

Could you please make an effort to communicate all necessary details when you have a request?

In this case, I can't be sure which files you're referring to. The XYZ files for the ABC project that we were discussing recently have been sent to you by email already; I've re-sent them just in case those were the ones you're referring to.

I've checked the FTP file share and your shared files are all present there.

I'm not sure if there are some other files you're thinking of, that I didn't look for.

If you could please specify exactly what you need when you have a request, take the time to communicate the full details, it would really help me out. That way I can check for just the single place you're referring to and not waste time looking for unrelated files, or wondering if I understood your request.

Best,

Jordy

Other example:

I am not sure this is a good idea!!!!!!!!!

Response (to a subordinate/lateral):

Dear Sally,

I understand your opinion, but for it to be of use in our decision-making process, I'm afraid it will be necessary for you to provide further information as to why you think it is a bad idea.

Jim has stated the situation he is trying to address with this proposed solution. Do you understand the problem we're seeking to solve?

We must base this decision on data and rationale, not just opinions—no matter how strongly felt.

Best,

Jordy


If the emails are in fact clear, well-written, contain sufficient details for action to be taken, and are concise—AND they have excessive use of punctuation—then please consider the possibility that you've dropped into an alternate universe. ;)

Otherwise, get them to provide complete, actionable communications, and the superfluous punctuation will dry up as a side effect.

protected by Lilienthal Mar 6 '17 at 14:13

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