What is the difference? How is the first used?

What in the hell?
What the hell?


How in the hell?
How the hell?

And what other examples are there?


These are purely idiomatic phrases, there is no systematic pattern of grammar here. Other similar examples "What the devil..." or the minced oath "What the Dickens..."

And if I may advise, if you need to ask about an offensive or insulting phrase, then you don't know enough to use it convincingly.


Such uses of "in the" may date back to when hell, or heaven, were commonly regarded as actual places that a person could be in. But few if any, people who now use such phrases still take that view.

When this is combined with the use of minced oaths where part of the original expression is replaced with one of a similar sound or spelling, but a completely different meaning (if any), where "in" likely makes no separate sense at all, these must be regarded as idioms or fixed phrases, that cannot be computationally analyzed.

It is not always the case that a version with "in" is stronger than one without. That may vary by region and by dialect.

  • The point I was trying to make is that we don't say 'in the Hell' for the same reason we don't say 'in the Toronto', or 'in the Scotland'. – Michael Harvey Aug 16 '19 at 13:39
  • @michael H But in fact many people do say "What in the hell do you think you were doing?" I have heard this form many times. No it doesn't really make sense when the words are analyzed. History might make sense of it, but idioms don't always make sensae. – David Siegel Aug 16 '19 at 13:46
  • They don't say it much in England, where I am. It would heard as "odd". – Michael Harvey Aug 16 '19 at 17:06

The word "in" is used as an intensifier. The extra syllable adds emphasis to the exclamation. Additional words can be added in to further build on the intensity:

What the hell

What in the hell

What in the damn hell

What in the God damn hell

What in the ever living God damn hell


  • But one should remember. – Michael Login Aug 15 '19 at 17:39
  • What in hell, or what the hell, but never what in the hell. – Michael Harvey Aug 15 '19 at 18:15
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    @MichaelHarvey Not so. – choster Aug 15 '19 at 20:07
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    @MichaelHarvey Using "in the" may be more popular in certain regions, but that doesn't make it incorrect. Sam Hill is used as a euphemism for "hell" and is commonly said using "in the". Modern use of "in the" with expletives may be a remnant of how the phrases were used in the 19th century, or earlier. – Luck Aug 15 '19 at 21:48
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    “What in the h—l” is a perfectly cromulent expression. – whiskeychief Aug 16 '19 at 1:12

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