English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In emphatic questions, it's common to see or hear an interjection such as the heck — or something more vulgar — between the interrogative and the verb.

What was that?


What the heck was that?

Is there any way to interpret this grammatically, other than taking the heck as an interjection in its entirety? I guess it doesn't even qualify as an interjection, does it? I can’t think of a way you would parse the sentence properly. The problem is that it comes before the verb and not after. “What was the heck?”, although nonsensical, is grammatically simple. Bonus points if you can explain how this language feature evolved.

share|improve this question
WTF? – FumbleFingers Dec 9 '11 at 4:14
@FumbleFingers wtf? I was going to write this :P :D – COD3BOY Dec 9 '11 at 4:38
I think you just have to take "what the heck" as a question-word in its entirety. Don't know how linguists deal with this formally, which is why this is a comment, not an answer. – alcas Dec 9 '11 at 4:39

A question like this got asked on alt.usage.english during the 90's, and for a while this answer to it was one of the most popular files on my website.

share|improve this answer
Answers that require the reader to leave the site really aren't answers. You've sourced the information, how about adding it? – user362 Dec 12 '11 at 14:09

Interesting question. In the case you give - What the heck was that? - then I would say the heck would be an adverb, modifying the verb was. It seems to be defined as such, with Wiktionary describing the heck as an:

Expletive used for emphasis after an interrogative word.

But bear in mind that such usages would be considered slang, in which case all bets are off as far as trying to pin them down grammatically speaking. Consider phrases such as:

What the heck?

Heck ya mean?

The hell I don't!

To me at least, the interpretation of these is not as clear.

share|improve this answer

I once stumbled upon this website, transcribing a paper written about English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subjects, which whilst not covering "the heck" it does get across the difficulties of pinning down what these words are, and makes a good read of it.

share|improve this answer
BTW, it's "English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject", singular. I used to make that mistake, too. – John Lawler Dec 9 '11 at 15:24
That is how it's written in the post though, so I'm editing it back. – Pureferret Dec 10 '11 at 0:08
For future reference, rollback is a better way to do this: it makes your post less likely to be made CW unintentionally. (and you get a badge!) – TimLymington Jan 11 '12 at 15:28

I think the heck modifies What. Other languages have specific words for this: Latin quisnam means precisely who the hell...?. But English has a large number of mild or minced oaths, so no one predominates. It may in future: I have seen Whatinhell was that? (as a quotation), and if it catches on no doubt our 23rd century successors will argue over the precise difference between whatinhell and whattheheck.

share|improve this answer

As I parse it, "The hell?" seems to be a "shortening" of "What the hell" which is a shortening of "What in the hell?" or "What in hell", Which could be a shorter version of "what the hell is that?" which could be expanded to "What thing that is in Hell/heck (is that object/is happening/am I witnessing)?" So if you say "What the heck?", "the heck" could be part of a prepositional phrase: "What (thing [in) the heck] is that?" It's strange, though, that "the heck" or "the hell" are specified, as "a hell" isn't normally talked about, and "Hell" is used as a name of a place, rather than a type of place.

Now, you could take "What the heck?" literally, and you'd be asking Which version of "the heck" that was, or something like that. Now, in "what in hell", we're asking "What (thing (that exists)) in hell (is (something/that)/is going on/did I just witness)?".

It's interesting to me (although I couldn't say how on topic) to note that most objects by the utterer are usually not considered to actually be in hell, although in "What on Earth?", most objects actually are considered to be "on Earth", and astute/snarky/pedantic/literalistic persons will note as such when someone says "What on Earth?" about something which is not actually on Earth. (Example: "What on Earth is a dwarf planet?" "Technically, there are no dwarf planets on Earth.")

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Jul 2 '14 at 2:41

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.