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What is the difference? How is the first used?

What in the hell?
What the hell?

and

How in the hell?
How the hell?

And what other examples are there?

3 Answers 3

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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.

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  • Also, see "WTF!?"
    – user33415
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 22:48
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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.

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  • 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'. Commented Aug 16, 2019 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. Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 13:46
  • They don't say it much in England, where I am. It would heard as "odd". Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 17:06
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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

etc.

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  • But one should remember. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 17:39
  • What in hell, or what the hell, but never what in the hell. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 18:15
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    @MichaelHarvey Not so.
    – choster
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 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
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 21:48
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    “What in the h—l” is a perfectly cromulent expression. Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 1:12

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