Recently the question has been raised about if (and to what extent) we should allow coarse language in our posts here on ELL. No one is trying to tamp down on free speech, and I know this has been brought up on MSO many times in the past. We're not really talking about the occasional curse word here and there, though, but questions which revolve around curse words. A recent example can be found here.

So the question is, are questions like this acceptable? My personal opinion is that, in general, if a question is asked in good faith and is well-researched and also happens to question the meaning of a curse word, it is acceptable (we certainly don't want learners to go around misusing inappropriate words!). However it isn't always easy to determine when a question is asked in good faith, and we also don't want to open ourselves up to people asking questions with gratuitous bad language to garner a reaction from the community.

So, we're not really sure which way we should lean on this one. My first instinct is that everything should be taken in moderation and a middle ground is appropriate, but we'd like to hear what the community thinks. (Perhaps, as Matt suggests in a comment on the example question, a higher threshold of research effort should be enforced on such questions to show good faith?). Please come share your opinions, we want the community to shape our policy on this.

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    There's a usage I've not come across before! Google Books "tamp down on free speech" - 1 instance; "clamp down on free speech" - 104 instances. Jun 25, 2013 at 18:33
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    @snailboat: To tamp down is a perfectly normal phrasal verb, particularly in "construction" contexts. But tamp down on is very rare compared to clamp down on (8 to 880 in the corpus you linked to, and I think most of those 8 are from somewhat "suspect" sources). Jun 25, 2013 at 19:50
  • @FumbleFingers Ah, interesting. WendiKidd, was tamp down on a typo or such?
    – user230
    Jun 25, 2013 at 19:58
  • @FumbleFingers, snailboat Man you guys make me think ;) If neither of you had heard it before I'd guess it's probably regional; it's something I've heard often throughout my life but never actually seen written down before. So I'd suppose those are my southern roots showing through, and I'll take it under advisement that I shouldn't use it in writing again if I want to be understood! :) (Interestingly enough, clamp down on sounds strange to me in context; I picture grabbing hold of something rather than smothering it, though research shows it is used that way quite often.)
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 25, 2013 at 21:14
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    @snailboat Definitely (subconsciously) intentional but I have seen the error of my ways; above comment is addressed to you as well!
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 25, 2013 at 21:14
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    Tamp down seems entirely comprehensible to me. Indeed, it may be a more apt metaphor for the process than clamp down, given the sense of attenuation rather than annihilation. Also, if a Colloquialism bee washed away by the Sea, English is the lesse.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 1, 2013 at 19:21
  • Ho hum. There's always someone willing to defend a non-standard usage. Compare tamp down on dissidents (0 hits in Google Books), with clamp down on dissidents (381 hits). @Wendikidd - your "smothering" sense is damp down. To tamp [down] is to to drive in or down by a succession of light or medium blows Jul 12, 2013 at 18:35
  • @Fumble - your comment belongs on main, not on meta ;^)
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 24, 2013 at 8:27

3 Answers 3


This was fought out on ELU back in the summer of '11, mostly between the mods and the SE Powers-That-Be. (Before my time, but it's fascinating to go back and read the discussions on Meta there, sort of like Classical tragedy where all the real action takes place off stage!)

The accommodation eventually reached seems to have been that coarse language should be kept out of titles, so as not to frighten the horses who graze on the multi-collider, but is perfectly acceptable in the body of a substantive question.

In this case the question is clearly legitimate; and to tell the truth, I didn't even notice the title when it was first posted—I generally ignore 'meaning' questions anyway, and OP's titular orthography was so discreet I took it to have something to do with programming! At any rate, bitch is pretty low on the coarseness scale—say 100- or 120-grit—and if I had noticed it it wouldn't have bothered me. F-bombs and c-palm are another matter.

  • When I think critically about it, I think the issue I took with the question was more the inflammatory nature of the sentence itself, not the fact that it contained coarse language. Of course this is to be expected; an asker is more likely to find (and then question) such language in inflammatory sentences than polite ones. And the sentence is not the OP's creation, of course. I'm not sure. I think there's probably a fine line somewhere that I haven't quite found the placement of (for my own opinion). I like your suggestion about titles, though; it's a good one.
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 21, 2013 at 22:38
  • @WendiKidd See, that's where we're all different! I happen to think that's a pretty good sentence; what I find offensive is the routine abuse of my Great Mistress the English Language by legal and marketing people who think she's a [to put it politely] trull who can be purchased to do their pleasure. Jun 21, 2013 at 23:05
  • The only problem I have with the sentence (and therefore the only problem I have with the question) is that the O.P. didn't tell us where it was found. Like StoneyB, I see it as one of those cases where a word is being stretched outside it's dictionary-defined definitions, and I think those make really interesting questions – even when the word in question could be considered vulgar.
    – J.R. Mod
    Jun 22, 2013 at 22:07

It's true that historically discussion of taboo speech has itself been taboo, and even many linguists once avoided discussion of taboo speech. That said, in recent decades linguists such as Ruth Wajnryb, Geoffrey Nunberg, and John McWhorter have published works describing taboo speech of all sorts objectively, which should tell us something:

  1. It's possible to discuss and analyze taboo language.
  2. There are people who think it's worth doing.

Do I think it's worth doing on ELL? Absolutely! People learning foreign languages need to understand taboo vocabulary, just as they need to understand nonstandard usage. Why? Because other people use it. If we don't allow questions about taboo language, then we're not meeting the needs of ELLs, and they'll have to find somewhere else to ask about it.

Of course, such questions should be held to the same standards we hold all questions to.


I think that questions about slang and coarse language are quite helpful for learners, especially since dictionaries (including many online dictionaries) and textbooks rarely if ever give satisfactory definitions and usages for it. And learners will encounter it in nearly any communication with native speakers.

That said, I do agree that questions involving coarse language should be held to high standards (as all our questions should), including showing research effort and context as suggest by Matt and that course language should not be in titles as suggested by StoneyB.

I also suggest that questions involving coarse language have their own tag. Which, in addition to being more organizational, would enable users to filter questions by setting it as an ignored tag if desired.

  • Do you have any good ideas for what the tag should be called? I'll suggest "taboo-language" here, but I'm curious if anyone has any better ideas.
    – user230
    Jun 24, 2013 at 9:54
  • I think a tag is an excellent idea, and I like @snailboat's suggestion, but I don't think it's something learners will think to add to a question (no matter what we call it). That doesn't mean we shouldn't have the tag, it just means we're going to have to take note of questions it applies to and edit it in. :) We can wait for more suggestions, but if none arise then I think you can go ahead and create it :)
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 24, 2013 at 14:10
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    @snailboat: ELU uses the tag offensive-language; it seems to me that ELL might as well be consistent. Jun 28, 2013 at 1:07

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