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Interjections and Exclamatory Words


Interjections are words we use when we express our feelings strongly and which may be said to exist in language as conventional symbols of human emotions. The role of interjections in creating emotive meanings has already been dealt with (see p. 67). It remains only to show how the logical and emotive meanings interact and to ascertain their general functions and spheres of application,

In traditional grammars the interjection is regarded as a part of speech, alongside other parts of speech, as the noun, adjective, verb, etc. But there is another view which regards the interjection not as a part of speech but as a sentence. There is much to uphold this view. Indeed, a word taken separately is deprived of any intonation which will suggest a complete idea, that is, a pronouncement; whereas a word-interjection will always manifest a definite attitude on the part of the speaker towards the problem and therefore have intonation. The pauses between words are very brief, sometimes hardly perceptible, whereas the pause between the interjection and the words that follow is so long, so significant that it may be equalled to the pauses between sentences.

However, a closer investigation into the nature and functions of the interjection proves beyond doubt that the interjection is not a sentence; it is a word with strong emotive meaning. The pauses that frame interjections can be accounted for by the sudden transfer from the emotional to the logical or vice versa. Further, the definite intonation with which interjections are pronounced depends on the sense of the preceding or following sentence. Interjections have no sentence meaning if taken independently.

Let us take some examples of the use of interjections:

Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers? (Kipling)

The interjection oh by itself may express various feelings, such as regret, despair, disappointment, sorrow, woe, surprise, astonishment, lamentation, entreaty and many others. Here it precedes a definite sentence and must be regarded as a part of it. It denotes the ardent tone of the question. The Oh here may be regarded, to use the terminology of theory of information, as a signal indicating emotional tension in the following utterance.

The same may be observed in the use of the interjection oh in the following sentence from " A Christmas Carol" by Dickens:

" Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge."

The Oh here is a signal indicating the strength of the emotions of the author, which are further revealed in a number of devices, mostly


syntactical, like elliptical sentences, tautological subjects, etc. The meaning of the interjection Oh in the sentence can again be pinned down only from the semantic analysis of the sentence following it and then it becomes clear that the emotion to be understood is one of disgust or scorn.

So interjections, as it were, radiate the emotional element over the whole of the utterance, provided, of course, that they precede it.

It is interesting to note in passing how often interjections are used by Shakespeare in his sonnets. Most of them serve as signals for the sestet which is the semantic or/and emotional counterpart to the octave, 1 or example:

" O, carve not with thy horns..." (Sonnet 19)

" O, Let me, true in love, but..." (21)

" O, therefore, love be of thyself..." (22)

" O, let my books be, then, the..." (23)

" O, then vouchsafe me..." (32)

" O, absence, what a torment..." (39)

" O, no! thy love, though much.." (61)

" O, fearful meditation..." (65)

" O, if I say, you look..." (71)

" O, lest your true love..." (72)

" O, know, sweet love..." (76)

" Ah, do not, when my heart..." (96)2


Interjections can be divided into primarу and derivative. Primary interjections are generally devoid of any logical meaning. Derivative interjections may retain a modicum of logical meaning, though this is always suppressed by the volume of emotive meaning. Oh! Ah! Bah! Pooh! Gosh! Hush! Alas! are primary interjections, though some of them once had logical meaning. 'Heavens! ', 'good gracious! ', 'dear me! ', 'God! ', 'Come on! ', 'Look here! ', 'dear! ', 'by the Lord! ', 'God knows! ', 'Bless me! ', 'Humbug! ' and many others of this kind are not interjections as such; a better name for them would be exclamatory words and word-combinations generally used as interjections, i.e. their function is that of the interjection.

It must be noted here that some adjectives, nouns and adverbs can also take on the function of interjections—for example, such words as terrible!, awful!, great!, wonderful!, splendid!, fine!, man!, boy! With proper intonation and with an adequate pause such as follows an interjection, these words may acquire a strong emotional colouring and are equal in force to interjections. In that case we may say that some adjectives and adverbs have acquired an additional grammatical meaning, that of the interjection.

Men-of-letters, most of whom possess an acute feeling for words, their meaning, sound, possibilities, potential energy, etc., are always aware of the emotional charge of words in a context. An instance of such acute



1 See the analysis of the sonnet, pp. 259—260.

2 It is interesting to note here that out of the four interjections used by Shakespeare in his sonnets (0, Ah, alack (alas), ay) the interjection 0 is used forty-eight times, Ah fiv e times, alack — twice, and ay — twice.

awareness is the following excerpt from Somerset Maugham's " The Razor's Edge" where in a conversation the word God is used in two different senses: first in its logical meaning and then with the grammatical meaning of the interjection:

" Perhaps he won't. It's a long arduous road he's starting to travel, but it may be that at the end of it he'll find what he's seeking."

" What's that? "

" Hasn't it occurred to you? It seems to me that in what he said to you he indicated it pretty plainly. God."

" God! " she cried. But it was an exclamation of incredulous surprise. Our use of the same word, but in such a different sense, had a comic effect, so that we were obliged to laugh. But Isabel immediately grew serious again and I felt in her whole attitude something like fear.

The change in the sense of the word god is indicated by a mark of exclamation, by the use of the word 'cried' and the words 'exclamation of incredulous surprise' which are ways of conveying in writing the sense carried in the spoken language by the intonation.

Interjections always attach a definite modal nuance to the utterance. But it is impossible to define exactly the shade of meaning contained in a given interjection, though the context may suggest one. Here are some of the meanings that can be expressed by interjections: joy, delight, admiration, approval, disbelief, astonishment, fright, regret, woe, dissatisfaction, ennui (boredom), sadness, blame, reproach, protest, horror, irony, sarcasm, meanness, self-assurance, despair, disgust and many others.

Interesting attempts have been made to specify the emotions expressed by some of the interjections. Here are a few lines from Byron's " Don Juan" which may serve as an illustration:

" All present life is but an interjection.

An 'Oh' or 'Ah' of joy or misery,

Or a 'Ha! ha! ' or 'Bah! '—a yawn or 'Pooh! '

Of which perhaps the latter is most true."

A strong impression is made by a poem by M. Tsvetayeva «Молвь» in which three Russian interjections «ox», «ax» and «эх» are subjected to a poetically exquisite subtle analysis from the point of view of the meanings these three interjections may express.

Interjections, like other words in the English vocabulary, bear features which mark them as bookish, neutral or colloquial. Thus oh, ah, Bah and the like are neutral; alas, egad (euphemism for 'by God'), Lo, Hark are bookish1; gosh, why, well are colloquial. But as with other words in any stratum of vocabulary, the border-line between the three groups is broad and flexible. Sometimes therefore a given interjection may be considered as bookish by one scholar and as neutral



1 The last two are somewhat archaic and used mostly in poetical language. Egad is also archaic.


by another, or colloquial by one and neutral by another. However, the difference between colloquial and bookish will always be clear enough. In evaluating the attitude of a writer to the things, ideas, events and phenomena he is dealing with, the ability of the reader to pin-point the emotional element becomes of paramount importance. It is sometimes hidden under seemingly impartial description or narrative, and only an insignificant lexical unit, or the syntactical design of an utterance, will reveal the author's mood. But interjections, as has been said, are direct signals that the utterance is emotionally charged, and insufficient attention on the part of the literary critic to the use of interjections will deprive him of a truer understanding of the writer's aims.


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