Interjections like oh or wow are sometimes described—too simply—as “emotion words.” They certainly can express a wide range of emotions, including delight (ah), discovery (aha), boredom (blah), disgust (blech), frustration (argh), derision of another (duh) or one’s self (Homer Simpson’s d’oh).
Some grammars refer to interjections with the term “exclamations” and older grammars may even use the term “ejaculations,” which evokes laughter from sophomores in the classroom. But whatever one calls them, they are an underappreciated and somewhat misunderstood part of speech.
Part of the problem is that not all interjections express emotion. Some aim to frighten: take boo, for example (to which the response might be eek). Some interjections indicate mock sympathy or amusement: boo-hoo or ha-ha. Shh is a command, not an expression of emotion. Whoa (not the misspelling Woah) calls a halt to something. And uh-huh indicates attention or agreement, but again not emotion. Interjections like ick and meh indicate that something is disappointing. And of course, other words besides interjections can express emotion—the verbs love and hate, for example, or various expletives.
Interjections can be ambiguous: Hm can indicate curiosity, confusion, concern, or skepticism. Among other things, oh can indicate comprehension or acknowledgment (Oh, I see), approximation (“Oh, about ten minutes”), pain or pleasure. And oh should not be confused with the prayerful O! or oh-oh used as an indication of something bad. Ouch (or ow) signals pain but can also be a comment on a harsh or unfortunate situation (“Ouch, look at all these red marks on my paper.”)
It’s not uncommon for words that function as another part of speech to be pressed into use as interjections, like well or yes, as in “Well! That’s rude,” or an ecstatic “Yes! I got the job.” In other situations, such as “Well, I don’t think that is such a good idea” or “Yes, you are right,” well and yes are not expressing emotion and should be considered adverbs indicating a speaker’s attitude.
It probably makes the most sense to talk about interjections as words used to manage communication by indicating reactions (uh-huh, oh, I see), attitudes (hm, well, boo-hoo), emotions (wow, eek, ugh), or parenthetical asides (I mean, you know). Linguists often refer to such words and phrases as “pragmatic markers,” and thinking about interjections in this way rather than as “emotion words” will sharpen our understanding of grammar.
You may not be ready to replace the term “interjections” with “pragmatic markers.” But remember, there’s nothing sacred about the traditional parts of speech.
Can I get an “uh huh?”
Featured image by Karolina Badzmierowska via Unsplash (public domain)