The Grammarphobia Blog

How to o-o-h and a-h-h

Q: In writing dialogue for a story, I often run into trouble when a character screams or moans or whatevers. How do you spell a word that’s rarely spelled? Examples: “Ahhhhh,” Jason screamed; “Oooh,” Michelle moaned; “Awww,” Nancy swooned; “Hmmmm,” Henry wondered. There are dozens of similar words that I simply don’t know how to spell. Do you have any suggestions?

A: An author is allowed quite a bit of slack when writing dialogue in a story. So one writer may spell Jason’s scream as “ah,” another as “ahh,” and still another as “a-h-h.” The same may be said about Michelle’s moan and Nancy’s swoon and Henry’s wondering.

Try to be consistent, though. If you use “a-h-h” in one place, stick with that spelling elsewhere in the story.

If in doubt, you can always look it up. You’d be surprised at how many of these words are actually in the dictionary. For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has three of the words you mentioned, with these spellings: “ah,” “oh,” “aw.”

I sometimes use hyphens when I stretch out one of these words: “a-h-h,” “o-o-h,” “a-w-w,” and so on. But another writer may skip the hyphens. It’s a judgment call.

The important thing is to be sure your reader understands what you mean. You don’t want the reader to wonder, “H-m-m?”

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