Whoa or woah?

Whoa is the preferred spelling to woah. English speakers use “whoa” or “woah” as an exclamation to stop or slow horses or express alarm, joy, or surprise.

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What is the difference between whoa and woah?

Whether you’re a fan of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Beavis and Butthead, or Nelly Furtado’s first album, “Whoa, Nelly!”–– you’re probably confused about the proper spelling of whoa and woah. So, which is it? The answer is that it’s both (technically, anyway).

Whoa and woah are variant spellings of the same word, although traditional linguists argue “whoa” is the correct spelling. But since the expression is informal— and we often spell a reaction as it sounds—  you’ll likely encounter “woah” within newspaper quotes, letters, or song lyrics. 

How are woah and whoa both correct?

We say that woah and whoa are “technically” correct because the spelling of “woah” is recognized by Lexico, a proponent of the Oxford English Dictionary and Dictionary.com. Furthermore, the interjection has changed several times over the last few centuries–– so, who’s to say it won’t change again? 

With that said, English speakers have always preferred the exclamation’s original spelling of “ho” over “whoa,” “woah,” “whoah,” or any other variant that starts with the letter w. According to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, “ho” has been the preferred spelling since the 1500s (especially for American English). The same trend exists for British English, although it never reached the same level of popularity in the United Kingdom as it did in the United States. 

Final verdict: whoa vs. woah

If you want to play it safe, use “whoa” instead of “woah.” Just make sure you pay attention to spelling variation for storytelling that occurs before the 19th century. 

Did you know?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is considering the addition of “woah” as a spelling variant of “whoa” after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) questioned its formality over social media in 2017. 

What does whoa mean?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), the word “whoa” is an exclamation (and imperative verb) that commands horses and people to stop or slow down (“Whoa” 1973). For example, 

  • ‘Whoa, there!’ said the herder as the horse came to a halt.”  
  • “If you say ‘whoa’ and pull in the reins, your horse will slow from a trot or stop altogether.” 

Additionally, whoa is an informal way to express surprise, interest, or alarm. For example, 

  • Whoa! You scared me!
  • Whoa! Stop where you’re at in the story and re-explain.” 
  • Whoa, whoa! Did you say that you have a podcast?” 
  • Whoa, that’s so interesting.” 

Synonyms

[1] Hey, slow, stop. 

[2] Aah, gee, ha, hurrah, ooh, wow, yay.

Antonyms

[1] Giddyup

[2] Aw, boo, no. 

Etymology of whoa

The origins of whoa represent several centuries of contextual adaptations and spelling variants, such as ‘whoo,’ ‘woa,’ or ‘whoh.’ According to NOAD, the peculiar exclamation is a late Middle English variant of “ho” (as in “surprised”). 

But as far as horse commands go, Merriam-Webster lists “whoa” as a 15th-century variant of “who” or “whoo.” The Online Etymology Dictionary additionally lists “whoa” as another 17th-century variant of “who,” which people shouted to command attention from afar. 

How to use woah or whoa in a sentence?

If we look at modern publications, “whoa” is the most common spelling for discussing horse commands or expressing shock, surprise, or excitement. 

Example sentences:

  • Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. Leggings That Cost $300?” –– The New York Times
  • Whoa! Detroit Lions stun Atlanta Falcons, 23-22…” –– Detroit Free Press
  • Whoa, there. It may not be as bad as it appears…” –– Horse Illustrated
  • “A horse may be trained to respond to ‘whoa’ and ‘giddy up,’ but if you speak to a horse, you’re not speaking in horse.” –– The New York Times

The spelling of woah” is less common than “whoa,” but the newer variant does exist within song lyrics, blogs, or news quotations. 

Example sentences:

  • ‘“And he talks about mental acuity? Woah,” Mr. Biden said.’ –– Washington Times
  • “‘I was like ‘woah, woah, I can’t let you insult my neighbors.”’ –– Tampa Bay Times
  • Woah, we’re halfway there: NASA’s Perseverance Rover is midway to Mars.” –– SciTech Daily

Did you know?

Keanu Reeve used the expression “whoa!” 113 times throughout his 34-year acting career. 

FAQ: Related to whoa vs. woah

Is “whoa ho” different from “whoa” or “woah”?

Whoa ho” is a combination of “whoa” and “ho,” which seems redundant when you consider the words are variations of the same word. Either way, the expression carries the same meaning as “whoa” by itself. 

Additional reading

If you’re interested in learning more about spelling variations, check out the following posts on The Word Counter

Test Yourself!

If you’re feeling confident about your understanding of whoa vs. woah, challenge yourself with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: Traditional grammarians believe “whoa” is a misspelling of “woah.”
    a. True
    b. False
  2. Which of the following is not a known spelling variant of “whoa”? 
    a. Woah
    b. Whoo
    c. Woa
    d. Whoha
  3. The word “whoa” or “woah” is a ___________. 
    a. Imperative verb
    b. Phrasal adverb
    c. Exclamation 
    d. A and C
  4. If the words “woah” or “whoa” are written in uppercase, the term is likely ___________.
    a. An exclamation
    b. An acronym
    c. An expletive 
    d. B and C
  5. According to our Google Ngram results, the word ___________is the most common spelling variation for American and British English. 
    a. Woah
    b. Whoah
    c. Whoa
    d. Ho

Answers

  1. B
  2. D
  3. D
  4. B
  5. D

Sources

  1. Harper, Douglas. “Whoa (interject.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline, 2020.
  2. Harper, Douglas. “Ho (interject.).Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline, 2020.
  3. Maslin Nir, Sarah. “To Break a Horse, and a Woman.” The New York Times, 2 Aug 2020. 
  4. McLaughlin, Seth. “Biden in Iowa: Farmers hurt by Trump’s ‘weak and chaotic China trade policy.’” Washington Times, 30 Oct 2020.
  5. O’Brien, Anna. “Don’t Obsess Over a Hoof Abscess.” Horse Illustrated, 11 Oct 2020. 
  6. Spata, Christopher. “On a St. Petersburg block, neighbors stay neighborly despite opposing signs.” Tampa Bay Times, 28 Oct 2020. 
  7. Tyler, Adrienne. “A Guide To All 113 Times Keanu Reeves Says “Woah!” In Movies.” ScreenRant, 12 Sept 2019. 
  8. Whoa.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  9. Whoa.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  10. Whoa.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  11. “Whoa.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1973.
  12. Whoa ho.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.