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.

  • 2
    WTF? Dec 9, 2011 at 4:14
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers wtf? I was going to write this :P :D
    – COD3BOY
    Dec 9, 2011 at 4:38
  • 2
    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, 2011 at 4:39

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 3
    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, 2011 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.


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.

  • 2
    BTW, it's "English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject", singular. I used to make that mistake, too. Dec 9, 2011 at 15:24

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.")


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.

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