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Do we always mean something positive in such exclamations? For example:

What a boy!
What a book!

Can they be interpreted in a negative way depending on something like intonation or whatever?

I mean, can it be used in a way that equals "What a bad boy!" but without any negative adjectives?

Please help to understand. Thanks in advance!

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  • "What a fiasco!" is not uncommon. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 at 15:35
  • It's not uncommon to hear "What a day!" when the weather is very bad. – Kate Bunting Jan 18 at 16:58
  • Yes. "What a boy!", for example, could be used as an exclamation of either a (male) achievement OR as an exclamation of immaturity. Both tone and context would determine. – user22542 Jan 18 at 18:59
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Your sentence is an exclamatory sentence which is used more frequently in spoken language

to show a vast range of emotions…love, anger, happiness, confusion, elation or any other typed of exuberant emotion... Exclamation marks are reserved for powerful feelings. They deliver a jolt of feeling, which is why they’re so common in everyday speech and part of exclamatory sentences. (from the K12reader site)

The type of emotion denoted by a particular exclamatory sentence is dictated by what follows what:

What a mess! (negative emotion)

What a man! (meaning What an amazing man!).

Note that if you put "neutral" nouns like boy, book, man etc., the connotation may be inferred as positive ("what an amazing...!") unless connoted differently by the surrounding context:

  1. Think of a mother who is angry at her daughter because instead of getting better at housework, she likes fixing cars. If she exclaims:

What a boy!

it is clear that the emotion expressed is negative (irony, disappointment, exasperation).

  1. Think of a student who hands in an essay which the teacher finds far too long. If he says:

What a book!

the emotion expressed is clearly negative, though trying to remain polite (irony, reprimand)

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These can be ambiguous, requiring context to know if they're intended as positive or negative.

In speaking, tone matters. In isolation, if someone says "What an ass!" you don't know if they're talking about a rump or a chump.

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It's not always positive. If you were to say

What a fool!

It would logically be interpreted as negative, because the word fool is not positive.

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  • Sure. But I meant my examples. When there is no negative word. – Ren Jan 18 at 15:22

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