Definition and Examples of Interjections in English

The words or phrases forcefully convey emotions

interjection
The interjection brr means "It's cold" or "I'm cold.". (Liam Bailey/Getty Images)

An interjection, also known as an ejaculation or an exclamation, is a word, phrase, or sound used to convey an emotion such as surprise, excitement, happiness, or anger. Put another way, an interjection is a short utterance that usually expresses emotion and is capable of standing alone.

Though interjections are one of the traditional parts of speech, they are grammatically unrelated to any other part of a sentence. Interjections are very common in spoken English, but they appear in written English as well. The most widely used interjections in English include hey, oops, ouch, gee, oh, ah, ooh, eh, ugh, aw, yo, wow, brr, sh, and yippee. In writing, an interjection is typically followed by an exclamation point, but it can also be followed by a comma if it is part of a  sentence. Knowing the different kinds of interjections, and understanding how to punctuate them, will help you use them correctly.

First Words

Interjections (such as oh and wow) are among the first words human beings learn as children—usually by the age of 1.5 years. Eventually, children 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.

With the advent of corpus linguistics and conversation analysis, interjections have recently begun to attract serious attention. Linguists and grammarians have even segregated interjections into different categories.

Primary and Secondary

It's now customary to divide interjections into two broad classes:

Primary interjections are single words (such as ah, brr, eww, hmm,  ooh, and yowza) that are not derived from any other word class, are used only as interjections, and don't enter into syntactic constructions. According to linguist Martina Drescher, in her article "The Expressive Function of Language: Towards a Cognitive Semantic Approach," which was published in "The Language of Emotions: Conceptualization, Expression, and Theoretical Foundation," primary interjections generally serve to "lubricate" conversations in a ritualized manner.

Secondary interjections (such as bless you, congratulations, good grief, hey, hi, oh my, oh my Godoh well, rats, and shoot) also belong to other word classes. These expressions are often exclamatory and tend to mix with oaths, swear words, and greeting formulas. 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 colloquial, both classes have migrated from speech into print.

Punctuation

As noted, interjections are more commonly used in speech, but you might also find yourself using these parts of speech in writing as well. "The Farlex Complete English Grammar Rules" gives these examples:

  • Ooh, that's a beautiful dress.
  • Brr, it's freezing in here!
  • Oh my God! We've won!

Note how punctuating both primary and secondary interjections in writing depends entirely on the context in which they are used. In the first example above, the term ooh is technically a primary interjection that generally does not enter into syntactic constructions. It often stands alone, and when it does, the word is generally followed by an exclamation point, as in Ohh! Indeed, you could reconstruct the sentence so that the primary interjection stands alone, followed by an explanatory sentence, as in:

  • Ohh! That's a beautiful dress.

In the second sentence, the primary interjection brr is followed by a comma. The exclamation point, then, does not come until the end of the connected sentence. But again, the primary interjection could stand alone—and be followed by an exclamation point—as in:

  • Brr! It's cold in here.

The third example contains a secondary interjection Oh my God that stands apart from the second sentence, with the interjection and sentence both ending in exclamation points. You can also use secondary interjections as integral parts of sentences:

  • Hey, why did you let the dog in here?
  • Oh my, I knew I should have turned off the oven!
  • Good grief Charlie Brown! Just kick the football.

Of course, the creator of the "Peanuts" cartoons would have likely used the secondary interjection more like a primary interjection. Indeed, a biography of the famed illustrator uses the phrase in just that way:

Since interjections depend so heavily on how they are used in speech, the punctuation they take varies greatly, according to context, but they are usually followed by an exclamation point when standing alone or a comma when introducing a sentence.

Versatile Parts of Speech

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 intonationcontext, and what linguists call pragmatic function, such as: "Geez, you really had to be there."

As Kristian Smidt wrote in "Ideolectic Characterisation in A Doll's House" published in Scandinavia: International Journal of Scandinavian Studies:

"You can fill it [the interjection] like a carrier bag with twenty different senses and a hundred different shades of meaning, all dependent on context, emphasis, and tonal accent. It can express anything from indifference to comprehension, incomprehension, query, rebuttal, rebuke, indignation, impatience, disappointment, surprise, admiration, disgust, and delight in any number of degrees."

With interjections fulfilling such a large role in English, grammarians and linguists are calling for more attention to and study of these important parts of speech. As Douglas Biber, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and Edward Finegan note in "Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English":

"If we are to describe spoken language adequately, we need to pay more attention to [interjections] than has traditionally been done."

In an era of increasing communication via text messaging and social media—which is often laced with interjections—experts say that paying more attention to these loud and forceful parts of speech will help create a better understanding of how human beings actually communicate. And that thought certainly deserves a loud and forceful Youwza!