I searched here wow and here whoa and they seem to be pronounced differently. I'm concerned only when the meaning is to signify surprise. However, I'm not sure when to use one or the other, since both seem to express surprise. Seems to me "wow" is for mostly positive surprise (although could be used ironically) and "whoa" for negative connotation. My question is specific to the US to make it more answerable and because I'm interested in that case.

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    "Whoa", literally, is a command to a horse to stop. Used figuratively it may mean "Hold up, there!" -- stop what you're saying and go back and explain what you already said. Can also be used, however, in a sense meaning "That's really surprising."
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:18
  • @HotLicks I responded you by editing the post, I'm interested in the meaning related to surprise exclamation. Thanks for the suggestion! Jan 20, 2017 at 19:04
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    "Wow" denotes surprise and connotes something impressive. "Whoa" denotes, as HotLicks said, "halt", as in needing time to process or that Keanu Reeves is startled and taken aback.
    – The Nate
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:40
  • Am I strange? I do not have the "wine/whine merger". When I mean "wow" I do not say "whoa" but I do say "woah". I do not consider "woah" merely a misspelling of "whoa", since (for me) they are pronounced differently.
    – GEdgar
    Dec 23, 2017 at 20:15

3 Answers 3


Positive surprise and negative surprise have nothing to do with it. Consider the birthday party guest who says, "Wow! This cake is delicious!" versus the soldier that says, "Wow! That bullet nearly took my head off." Likewise, "Whoa, I think this is the winning lottery ticket!" versus "Whoa, I'm about to be sick."

In fact, the two can occasionally be used interchangeably. Let's invert my prior examples:

Whoa! This cake is delicious! (does not sound right)

Whoa! That bullet nearly took my head off. (fine)

Wow, I think this is the winning lottery ticket! (fine)

Wow, I'm about to be sick. (does not sound right)

Two examples work with either wow or whoa, the other two don't, at least to my ear.

Rather, the difference between the two is simply that "Whoa," in deriving from the command for a horse to stop, is a figurative command to the world and to those around you, to stop (and to think about what has happened.)

To say, "This event was so surprising, so difficult to even comprehend, that I need to stop everything else while I take the time to process the event and attempt to understand the implications" is a mouthful. Instead, "Whoa!" is quite a bit simpler.

The definitions at Merriam-Webster support this:

1: a command (as to a draft animal) to stand still

2: cease or slow a course of action or a line of thought : pause to consider or reconsider —often used to express a strong reaction (as alarm or astonishment)

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    “Whoa! This cake is delicious!” sounds perfectly normal and natural to me. It carries an undertone of “I would never have believed you were such a good baker” which the wow version does not, but it’s perfectly idiomatic in my world. “Wow, I’m about to be sick” can also be fine, but that requires quite a specific context, like “Wow, [this booze is so strong I think] I’m about to be sick”—a context that makes the ‘about to be sick’-ness seem like an impressive prospect, rather than just a fairly annoying one. Dec 24, 2017 at 10:08

Hot Licks defines 'whoa' nicely as stop or wait.

'Wow' is an interjection of mild surprise or amazement: "Wow, that is big!" "Wow, adding butter makes this taste much richer." "Your scarf adds the right wow factor to your outfit."

  • Often, wow is positive and whoa is negative. Wow is a reaction to a big surprise (I am impressed), and whoa means please stop (which maybe due to my surprise.) However, with irony, I can say "Wow, you made a big mistake," or "You are going to wow them with your bright tie, but is that really the best choice for a job interview?" Jan 20, 2017 at 19:11
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    You should put your comment in your post, in other case, how can I judge upvote downvote accept your answer? In your post you mention the horse definition, but I made a edit before your answer wich has a sign in bold to not define it like that. Also, sources are needed. Jan 20, 2017 at 19:21
  • @Santropedro Whoa dude, "sources are needed", really? Did you try "definition whoa" in google?
    – Mitch
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:23
  • Use whoa infrequently, as it is still slang. Wow is also slang but very common. Jan 20, 2017 at 19:25
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    You are rejecting the correct answer as not answering the question as edited. The differences in how they convey surprise reside in their distinct meanings.
    – The Nate
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:43

Wow -shows surprise, excitement, usually in positive sense And it is pronounced -w +ow (ow as in owl, ouch!)

Whoa (as to stop a horse, surprise too) And it is pronounced w+ long o Whoa! You are going to crash if you don’t slow down! “Whoa! That bullet nearly took my head off. (fine) (Wow vs Whoa, what is the difference between them in the US?

  • This seems at most a comment regarding punctuation, and not an Answer to "I'm not sure when to use one or the other, since both seem to express surprise". Also, no need to link back to the question -- we're already here! Jul 27, 2019 at 16:01
  • This is an answer, but now that the spam has been removed, it's not a very good one. It appears to say that there's no difference. Or maybe that there is.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 28, 2019 at 11:28

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