The initial “Why”

You know what’s a lost art?  Starting a sentence with “Why.”  It’s so antique, in fact, that I can’t articulate when you’re allowed to do it.

I understand that the initial “Why” can denote mild surprise:

Why, I had no idea you were from Boonestown!

or some kind of vague intensification:

Why, you dirty rat

or can function something like intial “Well”:

Why, it’s quite simple, Maxine….

or can even serve as a phonetic wind-up:

Why, I oughtta…

But you clearly can’t put “Why” before any old declarative sentence:  my idiolect rejects “Why, I’ll have the eggs benedict and a coffee.”

Can anyone put their finger on the underlying rule here?


11 thoughts on “The initial “Why”

  1. chanson says:

    It’s kind of a funny usage. It’s a little like the word “well” in sentences like “Well, it’s like I was saying…” It’s not entirely clear what the “well” is doing there. (And that one, strangely enough, translates almost literally into French: “Eh bien, c’est comme je disais…”)

  2. Brad says:

    Why not?

  3. Jason Starr says:

    I agree that the sentence you wrote sounds odd. But if you write out the contraction “I will”, then it sounds fine to my ear: “Why, I will have the eggs Benedict and a coffee.”

  4. Graham says:

    To one’s self: “What should I have for breakfast today? Is there anything that would really get this day off on the right foot, rev my engines, put a spring in my step? Why, I’ll have the eggs benedict and a coffee!”

  5. JSE says:

    Why, you’re absolutely right! (First usage above.) So why is Graham’s sentence OK and mine is not? Note also that Graham’s sentence wouldn’t work with “Well.”

  6. Graham says:

    I think here it’s akin to the first usage, indicating mild surprise/discovery/realization.

  7. Laurent Berger says:

    Why you little!…… aaaaaackkkkhh

  8. Xamuel says:

    My own idiolect doesn’t reject “Why, I’ll have the eggs benedict and a coffee.” I suppose context has a lot to do with it. It does seem a little strange, and your partners at the table would raise an eyebrow: it’s like you’re indicating some power or profundity in “I’ll have the eggs benedict and a coffee” which isn’t appropriate. Graham nicely illustrates a context where it’s not just technically grammatically correct, but also appropriate.

  9. […] correct way of starting a sentence with why instead, like Jordan S. Ellenberg writes about here: I understand that the initial “Why” can denote mild […]

  10. Michael Lenoch says:

    I vaguely suspect that it may bear some resemblance to our Spanish-speaking cousins (whom themselves may have derived it from Latin), wherein “porque” means both “why” (as in the question) as well as “because.”

  11. Aparna Muralidhar says:

    What about “Why be sorry when you can be safe” – is this a question or a sentence?

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