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A Linguist Explains the Syntax of

By Gretchen McCulloch

Sometimes people tell me, as a linguist, that theyre surprised I swear so much. They think linguists
must have a mystic access to the higher realms of the language and that we oughtnt to sully
ourselves with anything as profane as swearing.

In fact, its a professional advantage for me to be fluent at swearing, because I have better access to
my linguistic intuitions about them, which makes them easier to study.

Im going to concentrate on fuck, because its the most interesting, and also because theres been
enough research on it to more than fill an article. I could tell you origin stories about medieval monk
cyphers and outlandish acronyms, and some of them (the monks) might even be true, but there are
already several nice explanations of this side of the topic, so Ill just point you here as a good start,
and get on with the hardcore linguistics instead.

The seminal linguistics article about fuck is called English sentences without overt grammatical
subject and was written by the suspiciously-named Quang Phuc Dong in the 1960s (well come back
to that). The article asks us, is fuck really a verb? That is, the command close the door is a classic
transitive verb followed by its object, but is fuck you the same?

It seems like it could be, until you realize that the equivalent sentence with any other verb just isnt a
thing: theres no such thing as *express you. (Note that I will be employing throughout the linguistic
convention of marking weird-sounding, aka ungrammatical, sentences with an asterisk.)

Furthermore, as Quang points out, an ordinary command can occur in a whole list of expanded
sentences, like the following:

Do close the door.

Close the door or Ill take away your teddy bear.

And yet none of these sentences sound okay with fuck you as our verb+object:

*Do fuck you.

*Fuck you or Ill take away your teddy bear.

*Fuck you and Ill give you a dollar.

And thats not all. One of the things that linguists have noticed is that if you want to combine two things
with and, they have to be the same part of speech: two nouns, two verbs, etc. So its fine to say:

Wash the dishes and sweep the floor. (2 verbs+objects)

Wash the dishes and the floor. (2 nouns)

But when it comes to fuck, things get fucked up:

*Wash the dishes and fuck you.

*Describe and fuck communism. (Remember, this was written in the sixties.)

jBut wait! Quang has astutely noticed that if you replace you with Lyndon Johnson (or really any
name, but again, this was the sixties), suddenly all those sentences that were bad with fuck you
sound okay again.

I said to fuck Lyndon Johnson.

Fuck Lyndon Johnson, wont you?

What gives? In fact, if you look at the meanings of these two sets of sentences more closely, we can
see that there are two possible meanings of fuck. Quang calls them fuck (1) and fuck(2), but thats
rather dull and hard to keep track of, so Im going to call them copulating fuck and disapproving fuck.

Now, by itself, fuck Lyndon Johnson can have either the copulating or the disapproving meaning, but
as soon as we add any of this other material, only the copulating meaning remains: dont fuck Lyndon
Johnson can only be interpreted as meaning dont engage in sexual relations with LBJ, and not as I
dont disapprove of Lyndon Johnson.

So copulating fuck is, in fact, a verb. Despite its rather more interesting meaning, syntactically its an
ordinary transitive verb just like close and wash and all the others. And you can do with
copulating fuck all the same things that you can do with any verb; we saw some of those things in the
examples above, but heres another:

Fuck Lyndon Johnson tomorrow afternoon.

But disapproving fuck, the one that pretty much only exists to be a swear word, that ones justnot a
verb. Not really, by any normal way that we recognize verbs, because you cant do with
disapproving fuck any of the normal verby things. Some of these normal verby things we already saw
fuck you utterly fail at above, but they also include getting more specific about time, location or
manner, like we just did with LBJ. That is, its fine to say fuck those irregular verbs, but not:

*Fuck you carefully.

(Things linguists in the sixties liked, evidently: teddy bears. Things linguists in the sixties disliked,
evidently: communism, irregular verbs.)

Anyway, the really cool thing about realizing this is that it works for other swear words too.

Damn those irregular verbs.

*Damn those irregular verbs tomorrow.

And this may leave you wondering, as it did Quang, if weve at least figured out that fuck and other
swears can have objects, kind of, even if theyre not really verbs, what about their subjects? Do they
even have them?

We have an easy test. We know that if the subject and object are the same, then the object needs to
be a reflexive: we dont say LBJ fucks LBJ, we say LBJ fucks himself.
I had known about English sentences without overt grammatical subject for a quite a while, since its
available online in several places, but when I found out a few months ago that there was an entire
book of similar articles, I immediately knew that I would have to get my hands on it. It has a
deceptively innocent name, Studies Out in Left Field, and an equally deceptively prosaic cover of the
dull, greenish-grey textured stuff found in academic libraries all over. Inside, its sometimes hilarious,
sometimes arcane, sometimes downright disturbing, and contains about as many misses as hits.

But even though it misses sometimes, there are plenty of hits amid its 200 pages. Id be in violation of
copyrightand perhaps decencylaws to reproduce them all (if you happen to have access to an
academic library, though), but heres a smattering of highlights that continue to address the question
we started with: what parts of speech do English swear words belong to?

In a reply to Quangs original paper, a group of students noted that not only are fuck and so on not
standard verbs, but fucking and the like are also not standard adjectives. For example, you can say:

Thats too fucking bad.

Thats no damn good.

Thats too goddamn much.

Thats no bloody use.

But it doesnt work to substitute the swear words with normal parts of speech, whether degree words
like very, or adjectives like blue .

*Thats too very bad.

*Thats too blue much.

Another paper notes a further problem with considering fucking as an adjective. Both fucking and any
standard adjective formed from a verb, such as playing, can be used both before a noun, as we see

Turn off that playing radio.

Turn off that fucking radio.

But playing or play can also be found in a relative clause:

Turn off that radio which is playing.

Turn off that radio which plays.

And fucking and fuck just dont work in the same context:

*Turn off that radio which is fucking.

*Turn off that radio which fucks

Similarly, Bopp points out, you might think that fucking well is an adverb, like quietly:

John quietly picked the lock.

You fucking well took your time.

But it turns out that fucking well cant do the things that normal adverbs do. For example,

Quietly, John picked the lock.

*Fucking well, you took your time.

Both Shad and Bopp also briefly mention the uniqueness of swear words among English words in their
ability to be used as infixes, as in fan-fucking-tastic or un-fucking-believable. However, this
phenomenon, known as expletive infixation, is a topic thats actually been discussed in legit academic
papers, so its altogether too high-brow for our purposes. (That, and theres already a lovely cartoon
explanationof the aforementioned legit academic paper, which you should definitely check out.)

So although the various authors arent particularly aiming for a consensus, quite a few of them end up
noting that our current inventory of parts of speech is just inadequate to deal with swear words.
McCawley proposes a category of quasi-verbs, which Bopp expands to quasi-adjectives and quasi-
adverbs, while Shad goes as far as proposing an entirely separate category of frigatives, to contain
all and only swears.

Where are we now? Strange to say, but it doesnt seem like the syntactic study of swear words has
really progressed much beyond these obscure, semi-satirical papers from the 60s and 70s. I do hope
that any linguists reading this will let me know if there are other papers that Ive missed, or perhaps
even be inspired to write one. I mean, youd think wed know more about swears by now, for fucks