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"Oh, Wow!": Notes on Interjections

The Outlaws of English Grammar

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Examples of interjections in English

Shortly after Steve Jobs's death in the fall of 2011, his sister, Mona Simpson, revealed that Jobs's final words were "monosyllables, repeated three times: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW."

As it happens, interjections (such as oh and wow) are among the first words we learn as children--usually by the age of a year and a half. Eventually we pick up several hundred of these brief, often exclamatory utterances. As the 18th-century philologist Rowland Jones observed, "It appears that interjections make up a considerable part of our language."

Nevertheless, interjections are commonly regarded as the outlaws of English grammar. The term itself, derived from Latin, means "something thrown in between."

Interjections usually stand apart from normal sentences, defiantly maintaining their syntactic independence. (Yeah!) They aren't marked inflectionally for grammatical categories such as tense or number. (No sirree!) And because they show up more frequently in spoken English than in writing, most scholars have chosen to ignore them. (Aw.)

Linguist Ute Dons has summarized the uncertain status of interjections:

In modern grammars, the interjection is located at the periphery of the grammatical system and represents a phenomenon of minor importance within the word class system (Quirk et al. 1985: 67). It is unclear whether the interjection is to be considered an open or closed word class. Its status is also special in that it does not form a unit with other word classes and that interjections are only loosely connected with the rest of the sentence. Furthermore, interjections stand apart as they often contain sounds which are not part of the phoneme inventory of a language (e.g. "ugh," Quirk et al. 1985: 74).
(Descriptive Adequacy of Early Modern English Grammars. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)

But with the advent of corpus linguistics and conversation analysis, interjections have recently begun to attract serious attention.

Early grammarians tended to regard interjections as mere sounds rather than words--as outbursts of passion rather than meaningful expressions. In the 16th century, William Lily defined the interjection as "a parte of speche, whyche betokeneth a sodayne passion of the mynde, under an unperfect voice." Two centuries later, John Horne Took argued that the "brutish, inarticulate interjection . . . has nothing to do with speech, and is only the miserable refuge of the speechless."

More recently, interjections have been variously identified as adverbs (the catch-all category), pragmatic particles, discourse markers, and single-word clauses. Others have characterized interjections as pragmatic noises, response cries, reaction signals, expressives, inserts, and evincives. At times interjections call attention to a speaker's thoughts, often as sentence openers (or initiators): "Oh, you must be kidding." But they also function as back-channel signals--feedback offered by listeners to show they're paying attention.

(At this point, class, feel free to say "Gosh!" or at least "Uh-huh.")

It's now customary to divide interjections into two broad classes, primary and secondary:

  • Primary interjections are single words (such as ah, ouch, and yowza) that are used only as interjections and that don't enter into syntactic constructions. According to linguist Martina Drescher, primary interjections generally serve to "lubricate" conversations in a ritualized manner.*

  • Secondary interjections (such as well, hell, and rats) also belong to other word classes. These expressions are often exclamatory and tend to mix with oaths, swear words, greeting formulas, and the like. Drescher describes secondary interjections as "derivative uses of other words or locutions which have lost their original conceptual meanings"--a process known as semantic bleaching.

As written English grows more and more colloquial, both classes have migrated from speech into print.

One of the more intriguing characteristics of interjections is their multifunctionality: the same word may express praise or scorn, excitement or boredom, joy or despair. Unlike the comparatively straightforward denotations of other parts of speech, the meanings of interjections are largely determined by intonation, context, and what linguists call pragmatic function. "Geez," we might say, "you really had to be there."

I'll leave the next-to-last word on interjections to the authors of the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999): "If we are to describe spoken language adequately, we need to pay more attention to [interjections] than has traditionally been done."

To which I say, Hell, yeah!


* Quoted by Ad Foolen in "The Expressive Function of Language: Towards a Cognitive Semantic Approach." The Language of Emotions: Conceptualization, Expression, and Theoretical Foundation, ed. by Susanne Niemeier and René Dirven. John Benjamins, 1997.

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