The Indispensable Interjection “Oh”

By Mark Nichol

An interjection is one or more words uttered or written as an exclamation or an expression of emotion. I already provided a lifetime supply of them in a previous post, but here are some additional notes about one of the most ubiquitous of them all: oh.

Whether this all-purpose exclamation is followed by a comma or not depends on its purpose. “Oh, my” and the like are expressions of any one of a variety of emotions or comprehensions, including pain or repulsion, or surprise or wonder. Oh is also a placeholder that signals dismissiveness (“Oh, don’t mind me”) or indicates an approximation (“He was, oh, about this tall”). Say is employed in a similar usage (“What if I were to offer you, say, twice as much?”).

Its poetic equivalent, known as the vocative O — a stylized form of direct address meant to evoke a classical lyricism, is rarely followed by a comma: “O Lord!” is the utterance of someone asking for attention from a deity; “Oh, Lord” might be a more mundane request for consideration from a nobleman, though it often serves simply as an oath or a variant of “Oh, my.”

Some usage guides omit the comma when oh is used for the latter constructions, but the punctuation is a pertinent marker for a slight pause in this case and for similar utterances like “Oh, right” or “Oh, crap.” Likewise, a comma separates oh from a lengthier phrase: “Oh, where did I put it?”

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4 Responses to “The Indispensable Interjection “Oh””

  • Dennnis Coburn

    Rosemary T:

    The interjection “well” as in “The book about stupidity was, well, stupid.” is really most appropriate in spoken conversation. To me it means that the speaker started to say something that was obvious and repetitive but, after a brief pause, couldn’t think of any better way to express it and went ahead and used the obvious and repetitive option anyway….often intending to be humorous.

    When used in writing, it is appropriate when a character in a story, for example, is speaking and is, therefore, the same situation as in the first paragraph. In all other written work it’s a much overused attempt at being cute or clever. Even in such a case it would not be to bad except for the fact that it’s almost impossible to read any newspaper, magazine, etc. that does not employ this sophomoric construct. It reminds me of “It was a dark and stormy night” or “found buried in a shallow grave”.

  • TDP

    The interjection of “well,” in the context you provided, to me indicates that the writer paused and thought briefly about how to describe the book and decided that “stupid” was the best, albeit obvious, way to go.

    It seems to have a different, somewhat lighter touch than just saying “The book about stupidity was stupid,” which just sounds mean and makes me wonder if they even read the whole thing.

    The “well” is a way to say “I’m going to be frank here at the risk of offending.” I visualize a completely different facial expression and tone of voice when the word is not present in the sentence.

  • Rosemary T.

    I would appreciate a post on the interjection of “well” into sentences that seem to be describing something with an obvious conclusion. Here’s a simple example: “The book about stupidity was, well, stupid.” The interjection of “well” drives me nuts–does it bother anyone else?

  • kellie paquette

    I receive your newsletter, but did not get the link for “basic english grammar”.
    Could you please send it?
    Thanks so much,

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