The Grammarphobia Blog

Eeeeeeeek!

Q: While editing narratives, I encounter words that use extra letters to show that a character stretches out the word, as in “Waaaiiit!” I’ve suggested a hyphenated alternative, but “W-a-i-t!” looks bad to me in print. Another recurring problem is spelling a stretched-out sound like “VVRRROOOOOM.” Is there a style guide for such usages?

 A: You’re asking how to write out stretchy words that are used as interjections or exclamations, and there’s not much guidance around for this problem.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has this to say about interjections of the usual kind—those inarticulate noises we all make at times:

Webster’s lists such interjections as ugh, er, um, and sh. For those not found in the dictionary—or where a different emphasis is required—plausible spellings should be sought in literature or invented.” The examples given are “atchoo!” and “shhh!”

Note the triple “h” in that last one, which has extra letters (not separated by hyphens) added to the usual spelling.

We think this advice can be extended to the kind of usage you’re asking about—an elongated word or sound used as an interjection or exclamation.

Consequently, the repetition of letters, without hyphens, can show that an ordinary word is being used as an interjection (“Waaaiiit!” …  “Heeelllp!”). The use of hyphens (“W-a-i-t!” … “H-e-l-p!”) looks (to us, at least) as if the speaker is spelling the word instead of shouting it.

Like ordinary words, many that represent sounds—whether human or mechanical—are found in dictionaries. So there’s no mystery about their spelling.

Common examples include “ah,” “ugh,” “huh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-huh,” and “vroom.” Many that aren’t in dictionaries (or not in every dictionary) appear often in literature, like “eek!” and “hmm.”

If you’d like to emphasize that the word is being shouted or is particularly loud, you might simply capitalize it (“EEK!” … “VROOM!” … “UGH!”).

And if you’d like to elongate it to show that it’s drawn out, just repeat letters (with no extra hyphens): “ahhhh.” “hmmmm,” “uuhh-oohh,” and “eeeeeeeek!”

As we said, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. But we’ve tried to suggest what we think is the most reasonable—and readable—approach.

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