Not all fictional characters are meant to be smooth-tongued and lyrical in their speech. Rather, just like us, they sometimes mumble or stumble. Giving a character flawed speech is a way to make dialogue more realistic. And this very human kind of talking often involves the use of interjections.
The Chicago Way
According to CMOS 5.206, interjections (sometimes referred to as exclamations) are “meaningless utterances” without much grammatical purpose:
Ouch! I think my ankle is sprained!
CMOS 5.207 notes their frequent use in speech and dialogue to say more about a speaker’s attitude than the rest of the speech conveys by itself:
“Your order should be shipped, oh, in eight to ten days.”
“Because our business proposal was, ahem, poorly presented, our budget will not be increased this year.”
Interjections might be small, but they are mighty. In the first example above, the “oh” injects doubt into the estimate of eight to ten days. Without the interjection, the sentence would read as a confident statement of fact.
Interpreting the interjection in the second example requires more context. Let me invent two scenarios:
At this point the manager paused, frowned at the copyeditor, then continued: “Because our business proposal was, ahem, poorly presented, our budget will not be increased this year.”
The manager’s face was red as she gave the news to her department. “Because our business proposal was, ahem, poorly presented, our budget will not be increased this year.”
In both cases, the little “ahem” punches above its weight in adding information to the scene. The results differ according to context. In the first scenario, the “ahem” turns the manager’s statement into an implication of bungling on the part of the copyeditor. In the second, the interjected “ahem” adds a nervous faltering in the manager’s voice as she takes the blame.
You can see that even without a defined grammatical function, interjections are as useful as any other part of speech and especially useful to creative writers.
Interjections are normally set off by commas (see CMOS 6.35), a convention that seems to thrive in the narrative and dialogue of fiction. Examples from popular novels:
“Ugh, you’re the worst.” (Ashley Herring Blake, Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, 203)
“Okay, Daddy. Love you.” (Frances Peck, The Broken Places, loc. 532 of 6267, Kindle)
“Yeah, but that’s not the point.” (Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, 17)
“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it.” (Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, 10)
“Oh, it cannot be! Oh, wicked Pretty, to have hurt yourself.” (Madeline Miller, Circe, 11)
When an interjection comprises more than one word, the comma (or other punctuation) follows the complete phrase:
Oh yeah, dances and dodgeball: the two Ds of my middle school nightmares. (Jordan Sonnenblick, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, 95)
“Oh my god. What did you say to her?” (Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, 43)
“Hey there,” Iris said when she stopped in front of Delilah. (Blake, Delilah, 101)
Well, I didn’t know him. [“Well” is an interjection.]
I didn’t know him well. [“Well” is an adverb.]
Why, here you are! [“Why” is an interjection.]
I have no idea why you are here. [“Why” is an adverbial conjunction.]
A series of interjections usually includes a comma after each one:
“And, ah, look, in the time it took me to locate that blasted bottle, another lovely appearance.” (Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise, 5)
Umm, yeah, no. (Jenn Bennett, Alex, Approximately, 12)
“Oh, um, yeah, nice to meet you.” (Blake, Delilah, 101)
And as in the examples above from CMOS, an interjection that pops up midsentence is typically set off by two commas:
A verdant landscape of, well, of some unspecified crop. (Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, 10)
But, oh, he was spared from further humiliation. (Yanagihara, To Paradise, 5)
Although the examples above all feature commas, stronger punctuation—such as a period, dash, or exclamation point—can convey intonation, pacing, or strength of feeling:
Okay. Wow. That reaction was a little strong. (F. T. Lukens, So This Is Ever After, 44)
Oh, yeah—Mr. Watras. (Sonnenblick, Drums, 265)
“AIIIE!” somebody screeched. (Darcie Little Badger, “Cottonmouth Is Cast from Home,” in A Snake Falls to Earth)
Interjections are an important part of creative writing. Their treatment, however, needn’t be creative. Chicago style will serve a writer well.
Bennett, Jenn. Alex, Approximately. New York: Simon Pulse, 2018.
Blake, Ashley Herring. Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. New York: Berkley, 2022.
Little Badger, Darcie. A Snake Falls to Earth. Montclair, NJ: Levine Querido, 2021. Kindle.
Lukens, F. T. So This Is Ever After. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2022.
Mandel, Emily St. John. Sea of Tranquility. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
Miller, Madeline. Circe. New York: Little, Brown, 2018.
Peck, Frances. The Broken Places. Nunatak First Fiction Series 57. Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press, 2022. Kindle.
Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Ember, 2017.
Sonnenblick, Jordan. Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. New York: Scholastic, 2014.
Yanagihara, Hanya. To Paradise. New York: Doubleday, 2022.
Top image: Oops! by AKS / Adobe Stock.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Carol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.
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