23 August, 2018
Oops! I spilled some coffee.
Hmm... Let me think about it.
Woohoo! That's great news. Let's celebrate.
To the untrained ear, sounds like "oops" "hmm" and "woohoo" may seem like nonsense. But in English, these sounds carry a lot of meaning. We call them "interjections." And the English language has hundreds of them.
Interjections are informal sounds, words or phrases that express the reactions or emotions of the speaker. There are interjections for nearly any feeling or response, such as excitement, happiness, surprise or disappointment.
Because there are so many English interjections, the best way to learn them is to hear how they're used.
For example, if I accidentally spilled coffee, my reaction would probably be one of regret. So, I might say, "Oops!" Listen to how it is used:
Oops! I spilled some coffee. But don't worry—I'll clean it up.
We use "oops" to show regret for having done or said something wrong. It's like saying, "I made a mistake."
When do we use them?
Native English speakers use interjections every day. And that includes everyone from babies to older adults. In fact, a baby's first word might be an interjection. A baby might say "ow" or "ouch!" when they touch something too hot or "yum!" when their food tastes delicious.
But an adult might, too.
Interjections are used in spoken English, informal writing and creative writing, including in books, films and songs. You may remember American singer Britney Spears' most famous song, "Oops! ...I Did It Again" in which she shows regret for breaking someone's heart.
We do not use interjections in formal writing, such as essays or research papers. And, we usually avoid them in professional messages, such as business letters or emails.
Yet, their informal status does not make them any less useful of a communication tool. Even respected dictionaries now include their meanings.
Primary vs. secondary
There are two types of interjections: primary and secondary.
Primary interjections are individual words and sounds that are used only as interjections. They have no other meanings or uses, such as the words from earlier in our program: "oops," "hmm," "woohoo," "ow," "ouch," and "yum."
Secondary interjections are words or phrases that already belong to other parts of speech, such as "boy," "awesome," and "oh my God." These words all have separate meanings as interjections.
For example, the original meaning of the word "boy" is male child. But as an interjection, its meaning is completely different. It is used to express a strong reaction, such as interest or surprise. Here's an example:
My cat destroyed my roommate's favorite plant. Boy, was he mad! But I promised to replace it by Sunday.
Using the interjection "boy" brings attention to the extent of the roommate's anger.
Parts of speech
Even though interjections are informal, they are parts of speech. They can be nouns, verbs or adverbs.
Here is an interjection as a noun:
Baloney! That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
Using the word "baloney" is a direct – and somewhat confrontational – way of saying, "I don't agree with that."
...as a verb:
Get out! The tickets sold out in 15 minutes. That's impossible.
"Get out" means "I don't believe it" and is usually used in a friendly way.
...and as an adverb:
Uh-uh. I can't make it today. I have a meeting at 5pm.
"Uh-uh" simply means "no" but is usually used to emphasize a negative answer to a question, request or offer.
But be careful not to mistake "uh-uh" with an interjection that sounds and looks similar but has the opposite meaning: "Uh-huh." It means yes. It can also be used to show that you agree or understand. Here's an example:
Do you know what I mean?
Uh-huh. I feel the same way.
Interjections do not follow usual English rules of punctuation. They mostly have no relationship to other parts of a sentence. So, they are usually written separately and followed by an exclamation point or a period. This is because their meanings alone can often express a complete thought.
Earlier in the program, for example, we told you that "oops" means "I made a mistake." That is a complete thought, so it does not need to be part of a sentence.
Still, we can follow them with a comma. You could, for example, write, "Oops, I spilled some coffee" with a comma following "oops" instead of a period or exclamation point.
The punctuation usually depends on the emotion you are expressing. To show excitement, we usually use an exclamation point after an interjection, which keeps it separate from sentences.
OK, now let's learn a few more common interjections:
If something is generally unpleasant, whether in appearance, taste or smell, you can say "yuck," "eww," "ick," or "blech."
If you want to say something tastes or smells good, you can use "mmm" or "yum."
If you are frustrated or upset about something, you might say "ugh" or "argh."
One thing to note: Different parts of the United States may use different interjections. Listen again to the example with "baloney."
Baloney! That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
The word "baloney" is most common in the northeastern United States.
And, other forms of English, such as British English, share only some interjections with American English.
Listen for American English interjections the next time you are watching a movie or television show or listening to music. And let us know what you find.
I'm Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Now, you try it!
Try using a few of the interjections from today's program. You can also use the table below. Write your answers in the Comments section.
Words in This Story
informal – adj. relaxed in tone : not suited for serious or official speech and writing
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
essay – n. a short piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject
dictionary – n. a reference book that contains words listed in alphabetical order and that gives information about the words' meanings, forms, pronunciations, etc.
original – adj. happening or existing first or at the beginning
emphasize – v. to give special attention to (something)
punctuation – n. the marks (such as periods and commas) in a piece of writing that make its meaning clear and that separate it into sentences, clauses, etc.
frustrated – adj. very angry, discouraged, or upset because of being unable to do or complete something