In Practical English Usage, Swan says

Have you got a surprise coming!


Was I mad!

are spoken American English and exclamations with ‘how’ or ‘what’ are old-fashioned, but I want to ask you if that really so because.. well, just other grammar books I have don’t mention these and I learned “How beautiful ~!” at a school, indeed that's a long time ago though..

  • Let's clear that up a bit, though I'm not 100% sure what entries and what edition of Swan's PEU you get the examples and explanations from. In my PEU, only "How ~!" is mentioned as "These are often felt to be a little formal and old-fashioned" (195.1), not "What ~!". As for American usage (under "exclamations"), I found only this note in 195.4, "Americans and some British speakers may use ordinary (non-negative) question forms in exclamations." (e.g. Was I furious!). May 9, 2015 at 19:21
  • If my memory is correct it's 2005 edition. I will make sure of it later. I do remember I found it under "exclamations". There are 4 sentences. I didn't bother to type the 2 remaining sentences but I will type in them later.
    – karlalou
    May 9, 2015 at 23:06
  • OK. So it's under Inversion section of 'exclamations' I was reading, 302.2 is the number. It says "In spoken American English, exclamations often have the same form as ordinary (non-negative) questions." and gives the two sentences I've typed out up there. Then continues "In a rather old-fashioned literary style, inversion is sometimes found in exclamations after how and what. - How beautiful are the flowers! - What a peaceful place is Skegness!" But now I see that I should have read the 195.1 to know he actually meant "How ~!" is the one old-fashioned. Ok. Thanks for giving me the hint.
    – karlalou
    May 10, 2015 at 0:49
  • 2
    You're welcome. By the way, there are subtle differences between the two entries (195 and 302). In 302, it's about inversion, so the note "in a rather old-fashioned style" in 302.2 is only about "inversion found in exclamations after how and what", so What a peaceful place is Skegness! fits the case, but What a peaceful place! is not (because there is no inversion; the exclamation doesn't have even a verb). ... May 10, 2015 at 4:48
  • 2
    ... Now, under 195, it's only 195.1 (exclamations about how) that Swan says "there are often felt to be a little formal or old-fashioned", with how + subject + verb as one of the pattern (e.g. How you've grown!)--note that there is no inversion like in 302.2, i.e. it's not How (much) have you grown!). In 195.2 (exclamations about what), Swan doesn't mention anything about formal or old-fashioned, and one of the examples he uses is What a beautiful smile your sister has! (still no inversion like 302.2). May 10, 2015 at 4:54

1 Answer 1


Complete sentences which start with how or what do, in general, sound self-consciously poetic or old-fashioned, as in the case of your sentence. As always, in English, there are exceptions (don't you just hate it when that happens?). In general, these exceptions are technically incomplete sentences, and their informality counteracts the effect of the construction. Examples: "What an idiot", "How very good", "What a disaster!", or "How that takes me back".

In poetry, of course, sounding poetic is entirely acceptable.



  • Thank you. Thanks for the links too. I am looking forward to get a great answer from someone rated this answer as a minus. :) By the way am I right to guess "How very good" is used in a cynical way?
    – karlalou
    May 9, 2015 at 23:01
  • Well, technically it's "ironic", but it may be cynical as well, depending on subject. Certainly you have the general idea. May 10, 2015 at 14:32
  • +1 from me. I gradually came to see that it's something to do with the completion of the sentence with how or what that it feels like old or formal or self-consciously poetic.
    – karlalou
    May 11, 2015 at 20:18
  • "How I have longed for..." is a bit histrionic as well. "How long has it been?" seems pretty anodyne, though.
    – Deipatrous
    Aug 2, 2022 at 7:57
  • @Deipatrous - there was a famous Monty Python bit which starts with sailors adrift in a lifeboat, and the officer asks,, "How long is it, Mate?" followed by the response, "Don't you think that's a rather personal question, sir?" Aug 2, 2022 at 16:46

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