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I am wondering if it is possible to construct an emotional sentence with an exclamation followed by an inversion:

Holy cow is this fish small! [added:] How did it not sink your boat?

with the meaning that I am very surprised how enormous something turned out to be whereas I was told it was only "small".

Another example: I thought aliens went extinct, and now I see a few creatures right before me. I say:

Holy [...] are they dead! Here are five of them running around!

Does this grammar work? I have a very informal, maybe even childish style in mind.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:00

1 Answer 1

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Cambridge says that some exclamatives have interrogative form:

We sometimes make an exclamation using interrogative (question) word order:

  • Have I got news for you! Peter and Michaela are getting divorced! (or, less strong: I’ve got news for you!)

  • Did I do something stupid last night!

Other short exclamations can preceded it such as, Wow! Man! Gosh!.

CAGEL says about this:

Subject-auxiliary inversion is available as an option in exclamatives, though it is relatively infrequent and characteristic of fairly literary style. The effect of course is to make the structure more like an interrogative, so that from a grammatical point of view there will often be ambiguity as to clause type. (p. 920)

Now that we have established that such sentences are grammatically possible, we can look at the meaning you are trying to convey. Your sentence

Holy cow is it small!

by itself, cannot be understood as ironical, it is the context that will confer this connotation to it. You can say the same sentence about something tiny, in a different context. But in the right context, in front of a skyscraper, or a tall tree, or a mountain you need to climb, saying this sentence would definitely be ironic in a joking way, or it could express stupefaction.

As for your second sentence, you need an exclamation which will express a contradiction of something that has been said or beleived before. As I read it, I instantly thought of the informal expression My foot!:

used to mean that you do not believe what another person has just told you:

  • "He says his car isn't working." "Not working my foot. He's just too lazy to come." (Cambridge)

So in the second case, I would say:

They are dead, my foot! ...

although the version suggested to you by @Lambie is also a good option:

Holy ..., are they ever dead!

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  • Thanks! This Cambridge article is the reason I came up with this sentence in the first place. ;) I would like some feedback now on how it reads / sounds to English natives given the context is clear (or explained by the following sentences). UPD: okay, thanks for your opinion!
    – Kiki
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 13:51
  • Oh, I didn't know there could be actually a foot instead of some other body parts! :D Is it stylistically on the same level as inversion? To me, the inversion sounds a bit less rude...
    – Kiki
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 13:58

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