Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

You don’t have to look much further than your typical Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed before you see a picture of a cat or a dog doing something adorable. Or maybe there are some cute animals at the zoo that elicit followers to go, “Awe, that’s so cute.” Or is it “Aww, that’s so cute” instead? It’s actually quite surprising how many people get these two words mixed up!

Let’s start with some fundamentals. Awe and aww are not interchangeable. In fact, “aww” isn’t even really a word and it should technically be spelled with just one “w” (aw) instead. So, which word means what?

Awe can be used either as a noun or a verb. It refers to an overwhelming sense of admiration or wonder, particularly of the sublime. The noun refers to the feeling itself, while the verb refers to the action of inspiring the feeling of awe.

Here are a few examples:

  • I was amazed by the awe-inspiring art I saw in Europe.
  • Joe was struck with awe when he arrived at Mount Rushmore.
  • The students were awed by the instructor’s teachings.

In my experience, the verb form is far less common and it can come off sounding a little awkward. The noun form can be commonly found with constructions like “in awe of” or “awe-inspiring.”

Aw, on the other hand, is an interjection and an example of onomatopoeia. That’s when a word is meant to mimic the sound that it represents. A gun goes “bang” and the steak “sizzles” on the grill. You could say that “aw” is similar in this way to words like “ha” (laughter) or “boo.”

In this particular case, “aw” can be used to express a number of different emotions.

  • Disappointment: Aw, I really wanted to go.
  • Protest: Aw, why can’t I have this toy?
  • Affection: Aw, isn’t that the cutest thing in the world?
  • Sympathy: Aw, I’m sorry for your loss.

In practice, I imagine more people write the word as “aww” rather than “aw.” I know I do. And it is also quite common, at least in far more casual writing (as would be the case with a Facebook post), to add even more Ws to amplify the perceived emotion being expressed.

Awwwwwwww…. that’s so sweet of you!

I can’t say for certain, but I imagine part of the confusion between “awe” and “aww” arises because of autocorrect and in-browser spell checkers. “Aww” will show up as an error for most people, whereas “awe” will not. So, when someone really means to express their condolences, for instance, they may over-correct from “aww” to “awe.”

And that’s not cute at all.