Last year, I was writing some grammar lessons for some online high-school courses and, strangely, I found that nearly every website I consulted on a particular point of grammar was wrong. Normally, if you think everyone but you is wrong about something, you probably want to rethink your position, because chances are you’re the one who’s wrong. In this case, though, I had backup.
But let’s rewind a bit first. You may have learned in elementary school, just as I did, that there are four major sentence types in English: declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative. (There are actually five types, because interrogatives can be divided into questions formed with an interrogative like who or why and those that are simply formed by inverting the subject and verb, but we won’t get into that here.) It’s also more accurate to talk in terms of clause types than sentence types, since this is really a matter of what pieces make up a clause.
Declaratives are the default clause type, and they have a subject–verb–complement structure, as in Dwight ate the pie. Interrogatives add an interrogative pronoun or adverb or flip the subject and verb around or both, as in Who ate the pie? or Did Dwight eat the pie? or Which pie did Dwight eat? Imperatives nearly always omit the subject (though sometimes you can retain it if it’s you) and they use the bare form of the verb, like be or eat, as in Eat your pie, Dwight.
Exclamatives are the rarest type, and they’re a little stranger than the others. Most websites (like this Wikipedia article, which lacks citations) will tell you that an exclamative is any sentence expressing strong emotion or any sentence that ends in an exclamation mark (which is what my kids have apparently been taught). Most supposed examples of exclamatives are either one-word interjections like Wow! or Ouch! or declaratives that happen to end with an exclamation mark, like That pie was delicious!
At this point in my research for those grammar lessons, I was starting to question my sanity just a little. The resources I was finding online weren’t matching what I learned either in elementary school or in college, so I pulled out the big guns: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Thankfully, it confirmed what I remembered.
An exclamative isn’t just any old clause that happens to be a little excitable. Clause type is a question of syntax, not strong emotion. Even final punctuation is not a reliable guide. Declaratives, for example, can end with periods, exclamation marks, or even question marks (as in That pie was homemade?).
Exclamatives start with an exclamative phrase that begins with what or how, followed by the subject and verb, as in What a delicious pie that was! Sometimes you can invert the subject and verb, though this sounds archaic or literary, as in Hamlet’s soliloquy: “What a piece of work is a man!”
Sometimes exclamatives even drop the subject and verb and leave only the exclamative phrase. Hamlet continues, “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!” These are all exclamatives too, even though they’re eliding the “is a man” part from the first sentence. It’s these shortened forms that are the most common. Think of how often you hear or say things like What a pain or How nice.
A handy way to tell the difference between a declarative and an exclamative is that you can usually turn an exclamative into a declarative by moving the subject and verb to the front and switching what to such or how to so in the exclamative phrase. Thus What a delicious pie that was becomes That was such a delicious pie, and How nice of you to bring us a pie becomes It was so nice of you to bring us a pie, with the implied “it was” inserted back in.
Now that you know the trick, you should have an easy time telling identifying exclamatives. Just remember that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. What a mistake that would be!
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website September 27, 2018.