As I’ve been re-reading talks from the latest general conference, something keeps standing out to me: the exclamation points. General authorities these days don’t shout when they give their talks. Had I been transcribing these talks when I listened to them last April, I wouldn’t have used many exclamation points. But reviewing the written talks, I see so many, and that made me wonder whether this is a new thing. Are general conference talks including more exclamation points than they have in the past?

Of course, I don’t have to wonder. BYU linguistics professor Mark Davies has created a tool that allows anyone to answer questions like this for themselves. As this very blog reported in 2011, the Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks built by Professor Davies collects over 10,000 conference talks and makes them searchable. This tool can show you how often a word or phrase has been used in talks over time, charting the changes decade by decade and even year by year. The tool works for punctuation marks, too. Here’s what it shows:

It turns out that my sense that the use of exclamation points in conference talks had shot up in recent years was incorrect. Talks certainly have more exclamation points now than they did a hundred years ago, but they’ve had a relatively high number of exclamation points since the 1980s. In the 2010s, we have 1,133.77 per million words; in the 1980s, we had 1,139.89. If we look year by year, we find that 1987 had the most exclamation points (1,538.06 per million words), followed closely by 2013 (1,512.05). The most chill conference year in terms of punctuation was in 1866 (71.36).

This breakdown of exclamation point usage led me to wonder about question mark usage through the years at general conference. How does the use of questions in conference compare to the use of rhetorical shouting as time goes on? The corpus does allow you to compare two words over time with one search, but the search terms have to be at least three characters long or else the search won’t run properly. So, we have to do the comparison manually. Here are the results for question marks:

I didn’t have an intuitive sense beforehand what the numbers would look like for this, but for some reason I was still surprised to see how question mark usage had dropped off after the 1880s and remained at a pretty steady state from decade to decade ever since. Note, however, that in absolute terms, conference talks have way more question marks than exclamation points. For instance, in the 2010s, talks contained 2,637.87 question marks per million words, compared to 1,133.77 exclamation points.

I’m not a linguist, and I’m not qualified to speculate on why the use of exclamation points and question marks vary from decade to decade. I am grateful, though, for tools like this corpus that let me check my gut feelings to see whether they match reality. And I find it fascinating to explore how eternal truths are expressed through ever-changing language and methods from generation to generation.

Do you find yourself using more exclamation marks in your talks than you used to? Do you think the mark has taken on a new meaning as we’ve started to communicate more through text and tweet? I’d love to hear what people think! Thanks for reading!!!

14 comments for “!!!?

  1. This is fascinating stuff! Thanks for the post. I never would have guessed that the current crop of GAs would use more exclamation marks than their 19th century counterparts. Brigham Young, for example, seems like an emphatic kind of man. I would’ve thought he would use more than anyone now. Elder Bednar, for example, seems so cool that I can’t imagine him using more than a tiny number.

  2. Ziff- I know what you mean. This corpus gives people the ability to find all kinds of surprising insights.

  3. I’m guessing during Brigham Young’s time certain principles weren’t as solidified as the are now, and the speakers challenged the listeners to think about what they were talking about. And you can do that by asking a question. “Don’t you think the gospel works like this?” (I’m not suggesting that anyone said exactly that, but I could see similar statements when brainstorming ideas)

  4. That would be an interesting thing to pin down, but I suppose you’d have to go instance by instance, then tally up what you find in the aggregate.

  5. I wonder how much of the punctuation choice can be attributed to the speaker, rather than the scribe? I’m thinking that modern general authorities submit their own text, whereas in the 19th century, the text was probably prepared by a scribe with little/no input from the speaker. Also, I wonder about more general trends in the use of exclamation points. Were they less commonly used in 19th century English writing, aside from conference? Is there a difference in that era in what was intended to be conveyed by using an exclamation point? Questions! Questions! Questions!

  6. This brings to mind something President Nelson said before his call to the Twelve: “My experience is that once you stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead, and do it, the blessings just pour.”

    Exclamation points stood out most to me when reading Elder Maxwell’s talks, so having an increase of those in the 1980s would track well with when he began speaking at every conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if President Nelson used them a lot too, though I can’t remember seeing them as much with him. Perhaps tracking use of such punctuation by speaker would offer more insight.

  7. For what its worth, exclamation point use in the 2010s is on pace to double exclamation point use in the 2000s (while significantly exceeding every prior decade). Seems like a noteworthy uptick to me.

  8. I think in general people use tge exclamation point out of its proper context. It doesnt mean “shouting” or raising ones voice. It is used to define a strong feeling or position or even to let someone know the significance of something. So yeah, I can understand why therd are so many of them in conference talks- our leaders voice tgeir strong feelings and things of great significance.

  9. It would be interesting to compare this to a general corpus of English usage. It might be that this simply represents general trends in how much punctuation is used in English and isn’t particularly Mormon at all.

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