Woah there! Have you checked your spelling skills lately? It’s been a while since most of us were given spelling tests, and though autocorrect catches a lot of things, there are other terms it doesn’t spot. Case in point: whoa vs. woah. While your spell-checker might not notice this, only one of these words is correctly spelled. But which one is it?
Meaning of Whoa/Woah
Whoa or woah is an exclamation that is “used to express surprise, interest, or alarm, or to command attention.” It can also be used as an order while horseback riding. You might hear the term in situations such as, “Whoa, did you see how fast that car was going?” or “Woah there, Mrs. Knickerbockers, don’t get scared; it’s a rope, not a snake!” (Mrs. Knickerbockers being the horse.)
Whoa has been a word for a long time, getting its start hundreds of years ago as part of Middle English. It derives from an even earlier English exclamation, “ho,” as in, “Ho, who goes there!” or “Ho! No you didn’t!” This usage of the term “ho” has fallen out of favor, but the spinoff, “whoa,” remains very popular today.
Is Whoa or Woah correct?
So which word, whoa or woah, is correct? The term should be spelled “whoa.” Considering the origins of the word, that’s not surprising: whoa is clearly derived from ho, adding an extra letter to both the start and end of that word.
It’s worth noting it’s probably not a big deal if you misspell “woah.” Because it’s a largely verbal expression, people aren’t necessarily used to seeing it spelled out anyway. Odds are, most people wouldn’t even notice if you spelled the word incorrectly. Some dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster, have even gotten into the debate, noting that, if “woah” continues to be commonly used, it may become an acceptable variant of “whoa,” in the same way “whoa” once became an accepted version of “ho.”
Still, until an official addition is made, it’s a good idea to try to get things right and use “whoa.”
Ways to remember the difference
There are a few different ways to remember the difference. One option is to remember the story of ‘whoa’ being derived from ‘ho.’ That can help you remember that the H and O should stay together and that the correct term is ‘whoa.’
Another option is to remember the word starts with W-H-O, or “who.” The first few times you spell out “whoa,” think the word phonetically to yourself as “hoo-ah.” Once that sticks in your brain, it’ll be easier to remember how to spell the word the next time you need to pull it out of your back pocket.