Interjections: Zoinks, Yikes and Holy Smokes!
The correct interjection definition is that it's a word or phrase that expresses sudden or strong feeling. This word type is also defined as being grammatically independent from the words around it—it doesn’t modify or get modified, like other parts of language. However, while a sentence will usually function fine if you take away the interjection, some of the emphasis or emotion will be lost.
This word type can be described as an inarticulate or nonsensical expression of emotion, which suggests that they are a lower form of word—far less proper than a noun, far less useful than a verb, and far less creative than an adjective. This is supported by the belief of some grammar experts that they are the least important of all the major parts of speech. However, we'd argue that the core function of language is expression, and these words do that in probably the most instinctive and authentic way. See this book for an explanation that's both simple and fun!
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What is an Interjection?
While you can define interjection words as those usually used to express feeling, reaction or emotion, they do have a variety of other functions too. Let's take a look.
Some words are easily recognized for the emotion that they express.
- To express pain -- Ow, ouch
- To express displeasure -- Boo, ew, yuck, ugh, shoot, whoops, rats
- To express surprise -- Gosh, goodness
- To express pleasure -- Yay, yippee
- To express congratulations -- Cheers, congratulations
- To express commiseration -- Oh well, oh no
- To express fear -- Eek, yikes
Scooby Doo Words
Some examples of interjections can seem pretty nonsensical and more like made-up expressions of sound than actual words. We like to call these "Scooby Doo words," as Scooby, Shaggy and the gang were super-fond of this word type, with episodes full of exclamations of zoinks, yoinks, jeepers, jinkies, yikes, gee, dang, ah-ha and ta-da! But let's not discount these fun "Scooby Doo words" as superfluous silliness, after all, aren't all words just made-up expressions of sound at heart?
- Zoinks -- To express surprise
- Gee -- To express surprise, enthusiasm or sympathy
- Yowza -- To express surprise, enthusiasm, approval or excitement
- Dang -- To express displeasure
- Drat -- To express displeasure
- Gadzooks -- To express surprise or annoyance
- Holy Smokes -- To express surprise
Take a look at this recommended reading for more examples.
Some examples of this word type were more commonly used in times-past. We challenge you to think of them in anything other than a very proper British accent!
- Eureka -- An exclamation of discovery
- Fiddlesticks -- An exclamation of disagreement
- Gee whizz -- An exclamation of surprise
Other examples include: alas, ahoy, bravo, gee, good grief, golly gosh, phooey
While most words in this category are used to express emotion or feeling, there are some that have a different function, including:
- Greeting -- Hello, hi, hey, bye
- Response -- Okay, u-huh, mm-mm, huh?
- Seeking Attention -- Ahem, excuse me, hello, psst
- Introducing a Sentence -- Yes, no, indeed, well
These words are known as introductory expressions. They can be used to introduce a sentence, but the sentence can still function perfectly well without them.
- Indeed, the bus was late again.
- Yes, I'm going to the library.
- No, go away!
- Well, I can't believe it!
This word type can also be used to express a pause in a sentence. We often use them naturally in speech without realizing. They include: um, erm, er.
I guess, um, it's time to go.
Erm, I'm not sure of the answer.
The technical term for this is speech disfluency, and it's generally frowned upon, especially in a formal setting. For example, a person of influence like a politician, news reader or lecturer would aim to avoid speech disfluency as it can convey hesitation and would not inspire confidence in what they have to say.
When to Use Them
This word type is normally superfluous when it comes to formal or academic writing or speech. Academic texts and resources, research papers and school essays are required to be factual, succinct and impartial, so adding emotion would be inappropriate.
One tricky example is the word alas, which, at first glance, seems to fit quite nicely in formal writing.
For example, alas -- unfortunately:
Alas, the experiment was inconclusive.
While the word itself sounds suited to a formal context, you'd expect to report on an experiment with impartiality, so the sentence would probably be preferable without the interjection.
You're far more likely to use this word type naturally in informal speech than you are in academic writing or in a formal settings. We often add them to sentences unconsciously, especially filler words such as um, ah and erm.
- Aha! I caught you red-handed.
- Bravo, you were amazing!
- Eek! My assignment is due today.
- Gee, that looks great!
- Hurray! It's the weekend!
- Oh no, the library is closed.
- Phew! I made the deadline.
- Rats! I lost my wallet.
- Shoo! Get out!
Creative writing is where interjection examples can really come into their own as a very useful language device. As a writer you can use them to convey your own emotions or feelings, as well as the emotions or feelings of any characters you create within your work. Some writers use these words–or make up completely new ones–to create catchphrases that become synonymous with those characters, hence Shaggy and his catchphrase "zoinks!"
Examples used by popular characters:
- "Cowabunga, dude!" -- Michelangelo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- "Zoinks!" -- Shaggy, Scooby Doo
- "Cowabunga!" -- Bart Simpson, The Simpsons
- "Holy Smokes, Batman!" -- Robin, Batman and Robin
- "Aaay!" -- Fonzie, Happy Days
- "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio." -- Hamlet, Hamlet
- "Bazinga!" -- Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory
- "D'oh!" -- Homer Simpson, The Simpsons
- "Dude." -- Hurley, Lost
- "Nanu, nanu!" -- Mork, Mork and Mindy
- "Yabba dabba doo!" -- Fred Flintstone, The Flintstones
The Emoticon of Language
The stratospheric rise of digital methods of communication, such as text messaging and instant chat, has led to the recent development of this word type. There are three main reasons for this:
- Digital methods of communication are usually used informally, making them suited to this word type.
- Digital communication is intended to be short and succinct, lending itself perfectly to these short, one word (usually) expressions.
- Interjections allow you to express emotion quickly and easily, to someone who can’t physically read your reactions. They're essentially the emoticon of the English language!
The most obvious examples are LOL and OMG, which, while technically acronyms, are now so commonly used that they're included in the Oxford English Dictionary as words in their own right.
The easy test as to whether an acronym belongs on the interjection list is to look at the long-form version. For example:
- LOL -- Laugh out loud -- To express amusement
- OMG -- Oh my god -- To express shock/surprise
- WTH -- What the heck/hell -- To express shock/surprise or confusion
The above examples are used to express emotion/feeling. Other digital acronyms aren't used to express emotion/feeling, and so don't fit into this word category. For example:
- BRB -- Be right back
- L8R -- Later
- IDK -- I don't know
Context is Key
While the definition of this word type dictates that they are grammatically independent to the rest of the sentence, their meaning often isn't fixed, so we may need to rely on the context to understand the intended emotion.
- Oh! I wasn't expecting that -- To express surprise
- Oh, you failed? -- To express disappointment
- Oh, that's nice -- To express pleasure
- Oh, that's fantastic! -- To express approval
- Oh, I can't wait! -- To express excitement
- Oh! That hurts! -- To express pain
- Aw, that's cute -- To express admiration
- Aw man! -- To express disappointment or sympathy
- Aw, come on -- To express protest
- Hey -- To express a greeting
- Hey! That's amazing -- To express surprise
- Hey, watch out! – To express warning
- Hey! Watch it! -- To express annoyance
- Ha! -- To express amusement
- Ha! I told you so -- To express triumph
- Ha. I doubt it -- To express skepticism or disagreement
If you want to learn more about using the same word in different contexts, you can find more tips here.
How To Use Them
One Word or Two?
As you've seen in earlier examples, this word type can consist of one or two words (or more). If there are two or more words, they work together as a phrase to function as a single part of speech.
You'll also find that single word examples can often be expanded by the addition of other words. Sometimes this produces variants with essentially the same meaning.
- Holy Smokes
- Holy Cow
- Holy Moly
- Holy Moses
- Holy Mackerel
All of the above have the same basic function, which is to express shock, surprise or astonishment. Sometimes, however, changing the second word can alter the meaning entirely. For example:
- Oh no -- To express displeasure
- Oh boy -- To express trepidation
- Oh dear -- To express disappointment
- Oh well -- To express commiseration
- Oh gosh -- To express surprise
- Oh yes -- To express approval
Many examples of this word type can function as full sentences, all by themselves. This is an unusual quirk of grammar, as a sentence would normally be expected to contain a subject and a predicate (containing a verb). However, these words often have the power to express a complete thought without help from any other word type. That is pretty impressive considering they're thought of by some as the lowliest or least important element of language!
- Ahem -- To attract attention
- Oh gosh -- To express surprise
- Yikes -- To express trepidation
- Ouch -- To express pain
- Oh wow -- To express admiration
- Oh no -- To express disappointment
- Cool -- To express approval or admiration
- Eh? -- To express confusion
- Indeed -- To express agreement
- Jeez -- To express surprise, admiration or frustration
Where to Interject?
The most natural place for this word type to sit is at the beginning of a sentence–or before a sentence, if it's standing alone. However, they can sometimes work in a different position.
In the middle of a sentence. Note that it should be enclosed by commas when in this position.
- This is a really, erm, an interesting film.
- You can afford, gosh, whichever car you like.
- They can, indeed, finish the work today.
- It is, alas, not good enough.
- I feel, wow, really overwhelmed.
- This bridge is, yikes, really high up!
At the end of, or following, a sentence.
- That cake looks delicious. Enjoy!
- So you missed the deadline, huh?
- My team lost again. Boo!
- A free vacation? Awesome!
- That view is incredible. Wow!
- I forgot my bag. Oops!
- It's time to leave? Oh well.
- School is cancelled. Hurray!
The Power of Punctuation
Punctuation is a powerful ally to this word type, and how you choose to punctuate can impact the meaning drastically. Let's look at some examples.
Exclamation Point BFF
These emotion words often pair well with exclamation points, especially when they're being used to convey shock, surprise or an extreme reaction.
Comma or Period
Alternatively, if you're looking to express a milder emotion or a greeting, you might use a comma or a period.
Asking a Question
Occasionally, question marks can be used to punctuate this word type. This would usually be the case when it follows or precedes an interrogative sentence, and can represent confusion, disbelief or uncertainty.
Let's look at how your choice of punctuation can alter the meaning of the same word within a very similar context:
- I got an A in my test. Really! -- To express extreme surprise
- Really. I got an A in my test. -- To express confirmation
- You got an A in your test? Really? -- To express skepticism
- You're skipping class again? Really? -- To express disappointment
Exclamation Point Beware!
While, as we've seen above, exclamation points and this word type often go hand in hand, don't make the mistake of thinking that every single-word exclamation meets the definition of interjection. For example:
Sarah! Your shoes are untied.
Sarah is a noun, even when the name is used in exclamation.
Stop! The light is on red.
Stop shows action, which makes it a verb.
Remember, the answer to the question "what is a interjection?" is that it's a word that expresses emotion/feeling. In both examples above, it's the exclamation point that conveys the emotion (urgency or warning, in this context), not the actual word that goes before the exclamation point.
This doesn't mean that another word type can't function as an interjection. Simply that the word itself has to convey the emotion. For example:
You passed? Sweet!
Sweet is an adjective that functions in this context to express delight.
You passed? Congratulations!
Congratulations is a noun that functions in this context to express joy in someone else's success.
Sarah passed. She rocks!
She rocks is a verb phrase that functions in this context to express admiration.
Sarah failed? Dear me.
Dear me is a pronoun phrase that functions in this context to express regret.
Eek or Eureka?
If you're yet to have your eureka moment with understanding the interjection definition, you can find more info here that might help. Remember, though, that this word type is not usually suited to formal academic writing, so you should avoid using it in your research papers.
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