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I have read through these two related discussions, but I am still worried about the reaction of some site users, and frankly potential downvotes simply due to the existence of expletives in my planned question.

Policy for coarse language in posts

What's the policy on using profanity in answers (where appropriate)?

The question I was thinking of asking is probably going to be pretty far on the coarseness spectrum, with one explicit swearword. But I feel uncertain about euphemistically modifying the word with asterisks or any other symbol. I don't know if bleeping it out or doing a minced oath would really make the post "clean".

The genesis of the question is that I recently heard a vulgar expression that I had not heard before. And syntactically it is also curious enough that it is dissimilar to anything else, almost like a one-of-a-kind obscenity phenomenon. I have tried Urban Dictionary to no avail (most answers to questions about inappropriate language can be found by a simple search there.)

I am not sure if posting and then deleting it would be viable. I never thought it was but what about the pickle I am in?

3 Answers 3

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My thinking in general on questions regarding coarse language is just ask as normal, but censor the title. No need to censor it in the body, but feel free to do so. Then depending on the feedback, we can edit or amend the post as necessary. If the feedback is that it's not salvageable (e.g. too vulgar, explicit, etc.), or if that was reasonably clear from the outset, then it would be closed/deleted.

Indeed, from what I could dig up, that seems to be the precedent. I searched a couple of swear words on our site, fuck and shit. Focusing on just fuck, I was surprised to find that among the questions not deleted, they were mostly positively received. Now, some of the questions were actually about the word, while it just happened to be in the context in others. Here's the one with the highest score (9): How should I understand this line from Pulp Fiction? That question did not include the swear in the title. Others did, but they were censored. The originals were not censored in the body.

As you're concerned about down votes, only 3/28 (~10.7%) of the posts had a net negative score.

Now, among the ones that were deleted, they were as I describe below: little to no research/context, gratuitous use, "non-native"/incorrect usage, and obvious trolling. In other words, they were LQQ as we're used to, but about swear words. The community came down hard in those instances (many down votes and flags).

I found similar results with shit.

Here's a sampling of (highly) positively received questions regarding these swear words with the scores (positive/negative/net):

I'm reluctant to include the deleted negative ones, as they are rather offensive. As I described above and below, they were LQQ as usual, but about swear words, and in many cases, just straight up trolls.

You can search around the site yourself to get a better idea of how your question's coarseness compares to previous questions, and assess how "acceptable" it might be.

All in all, I would say just ask as normal, censor the title, and then we'll take it from there. For the most part, it seems our user base is accepting of these kinds of questions (more accepting than I originally thought). Just make sure the question is well-researched and asked in good faith, as was advised in the linked posts.


In addition to what FumbleFingers has outlined, I just wanted to add a little bit of what does garner negative feedback for comparison. From my experience, the mere existence of an expletive in a post is usually not the problem. Questions on coarse language that

  1. are gratuitously laden with profanity;
  2. are over-the-top offensive (e.g. excessively violent, sexual, racist, etc.);
  3. lack research, context, or overall effort from the OP;
  4. are too localized, nonsensical, or in some similar way not particularly useful in teaching the usage of coarse English language;

these are generally the ones that get down votes, close votes, flags, etc.

As the linked posts advise, questions on coarse language that are well-researched and asked in good faith will generally be acceptable (or rather, tolerable). When it comes to touchy subjects, you always run the risk of getting down/close votes. But if you feel your question avoids the issues listed above, I would say go ahead and test the waters.

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  • I have had a question multi-downvoted for including swearwords. It was a while ago, and I don't remember the details, but I definitely didn't use profanity gratuitously. There was a comment saying I could have used a different sentence to ask about the same grammar point. While that was true and the question wasn't about course language per se, I simply included the context I heard it in and kept it verbatim--a line from a movie. As you say, there is always risk involved in such questions.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 29, 2019 at 2:06
  • @EddieKal I updated my answer, tried in incorporate some of my comments in the post.
    – Em. Mod
    Nov 29, 2019 at 20:01
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This is probably something better addressed by moderators, but here's my take.

The Use–mention distinction is critical here. That's to say I see no problem in "mentioning" coarse terminology in ELL questions (how can you ask what Shit happens means without including the word shit?).

What you shouldn't do is use coarse terms (so don't post a comment saying This is a shit question).


It's sometimes quite reasonable to include sample text containing expletives other than the specific term being queried, because they might give additional relevant context. But if that doesn't seem to be important in the context of the specific question, it's probably best to have no more profanity than necessary.

The only other relevant factor is that I'd normally prefer posters to avoid including profanity in the actual title of a question. But I can see that in something like Is there a polite, formal way to say “sh!t happens”? the OP might have found it difficult to come up with a good title if he'd done that.

I suppose you could include [NSFW] (not safe for work) in your question title. But hopefully we're all big boys and girls here on ELL, so I wouldn't worry about offending actual users (just give a warning in case the user's boss / daughter is looking over his shoulder, when he's about to follow a link to a "questionable" question).

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Using coarse language is difficult.

It is one of the marks of a truly fluent speaker that they can swear convincingly. But I also contend that it is an aspect of language that cannot be taught.

The questions about using swear words are usually not great questions. Simply: If you need to ask, you won't sound natural. Similarly it is not possible to explain the feeling attached to swear words directed at you. The complexities of social interactions and how a word can at one time be almost meaningless punctuation, but a moment later can be enough to start a fight are well beyond the abilities of a question and answer forum.

Swear words have an emotional and visceral effect. We feel them. Unless your language level is very high, they just don't have the same effect for non-native speakers. If I say "va te faire enculer" it is just sounds. Perhaps for a French speaker it is violent, rude but to me it means nothing. Since it means nothing, If I tried to use this (with my English accent) I would sound like an imbecile. Sure, native French speakers will use such language, but a learner should not.

The same applies to English. If you believe that you need the advice of an internet forum to decide when it is appropriate to say "go fuck yourself", then you should not be swearing at all. If you have reached the level when swearing is appropriate, congratulations! You are no longer an English Learner, you are now an English user.

So consider carefully if you need to ask this question. It may not be possible to answer fully. The answers that you get might only deal with meaning and the emotional charge might be impossible to explain. You may be better leaving this question unasked.

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  • Well, I think it is important we make the distinction between coarse language that employs swearwords and insults, because there are a lot of things said with swearwords that do not have to be emotionally or viscerally loaded at all. The question I had in mind falls under the former category. It's about a line that doesn't aim to insult. Also I am not sure I agree with your "if you need to ask then probably you shouldn't use it in the first place" argument. FWIW I am a heritage speaker of English and I have been familiar with English profanity since preteen.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 29, 2019 at 21:40
  • +1 for one of the [hall]marks of a truly fluent speaker [is] that they can swear convincingly. I've always despaired of people dismissing all coarse speech as evidence that the speaker lacks the ability to express himself without profanity. Truly articulate speakers make use of a wide range of language features, including Anglo-Saxon expletives and such. And nobody lives such a sheltered life that they won't have heard others swearing, so imho if they can't [accurately] incorporate that register in their own speech, that means they are the "linguistically challenged" ones. Dec 5, 2019 at 14:45

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