What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)
Chapter 6. Fucking Grammar
In every language there’s a logic to where words go. Nouns and verbs and prepositions snap into place to form phrases and sentences. This is grammar. I know that for some people, the mere mention of grammar triggers flashbacks to traumatic childhood moments, diagramming sentences on a chalkboard, covered in flop sweat, in front of a room of jeering classmates. But if you recognize yourself in this description, let me offer you some comfort. What a cognitive scientist like me means by grammar isn’t the angst-inducing stuff of your childhood. We don’t mean admonitions against double negatives or ending sentences with prepositions. These primary school lessons are called “prescriptive” rules of grammar. They’re part of some authority figure’s agenda about how a language ought to be used, rules laboriously hewn into young minds, where they are promptly forgotten.
That’s not our game. A scientist’s place is not to prescribe. The biologist’s job, for instance, isn’t to instruct the birds and the bees on optimal mating techniques. Nor is it the chemist’s job to tutor the gasses on how to be noble. Scientists observe, document, describe, understand, and explain. Language science doesn’t come down on one side or the other in debates about split infinitives or the Oxford comma (even though there’s clearly a right answer).aInstead, it aims to describe and understand the language knowledge already teeming through the minds of people like you.
The Oxford (or serial) comma is a comma inserted before and or or in lists of three or more items. For instance, it’s the comma right before and in I bought bread, milk, and carrots. The main argument in favor of the Oxford comma is that it can help to resolve ambiguities. For instance, without the Oxford comma, the following sentence would be ambiguous: This morning, the president met with lunatic fringe groups, the Republicans and the Democrats. You could read this sentence as a list: the president met with three distinct groups. Or you could take the appositive interpretation, where the Republicans and the Democrats just provides more detail about the lunatic fringe groups. The Oxford comma makes it clear that you intend the list reading. The only argument against the Oxford comma is laziness. Really, dude, you can’t type one more comma? It’s right there by your middle finger. Yes, that finger.
And a capacity for grammar is one of the most extraordinary things that evolution has imbued the human mind with. The rules of grammar that you know, implicitly, without any instruction and without ever reflecting on them, allow you to exercise the most powerful design feature of human language. You have the ability to string together new sequences of words to articulate any combination of thoughts you can come up with. And likewise, using your knowledge of grammar, you’re able to understand any meaningful sentence a person might wish to assemble, no matter how unexpected.
This point, like many dealing with language, was perhaps best articulated by comedian George Carlin when he pointed out that there are certain sentences no one has ever said before and that therefore no one has ever heard, like “As soon as I put this hot poker in my ass, I’m going to chop my dick off.” Or “Honey, let’s sell the children, move to Zanzibar, and begin taking opium rectally.”1 The fact that Carlin could utter these specific sequences of words and that you could understand them is a testament to the combinatorial power of language, which the unique grammars of every language on earth provide.
All typically developing humans use grammar to combine old words in new ways. But other animals don’t, at least not as powerfully and flexibly, and the ability to assemble and interpret previously unexperienced strings of words makes human language a qualitative leap beyond every other communication system in the natural world. So it’s fair to say that grammar is kind of a big deal.
But what are the rules of grammar in your head like? That is, what is it that you know—and are able to deploy—in order to understand a sentence you’ve never seen or heard before, like Honey, let’s sell the children, move to Zanzibar, and begin taking opium rectally? If you’ve never seen it before, the answer can’t be that you memorized it. Instead, you must be able to see how the words fit together because they do so in systematic ways shared by other words in your language. Although you might never have used the children as the direct object of sell, you might have used sell with the car or the house. Children, house, and car behave similarly in English, and it’s largely agreed that the rules of grammar in your head are general enough to cover a range of like words. Instead of knowing one rule for car and another for children, you probably know something about nouns in general and what you can do with them. Add to this your knowledge (again, implicit) that children and car and house are nouns, and you have the beginning of a story about how you can do new things with old words. You know, implicitly, general rules of grammar that you can apply to the tens of thousands of words you know to construct any one of millions—or, in principle, a potentially infinite number—of new sentences that no one has ever said or heard before.
But as soon as you add profanity to the mix, the rules start to change. Profanity, like the rest of language, follows the largely unstated and usually unnoticed but thoroughly essential rules of grammar floating around in your head. For example, a fluent English speaker might complain, “There’s too much homework in this fucking class.” I know this is grammatical—it’s a sentence that English speakers produce and understand fluently—because I overheard and understood this very sentence when it was uttered by a real, live college student.b This sentence complies thoroughly with the general grammatical rules that American English speakers have in their heads.
Let’s pretend that she wasn’t talking about my class. And while we’re engaging in self-delusion, why not also imagine that I’ve only heard this comment once.
But squeeze this sentence a little, and you’ll find that its grammar is a little strange. And fucking causes all the trouble. Look at what happens when you substitute other words in place of fucking, adjectives like stupid or inspiring. On the surface, these seem like innocuous little changes that don’t make much difference. But then again, swapping out a parachute for a tablecloth doesn’t really make a noticeable difference until you jump out of a plane. So let’s throw these sentences out of a plane—grammatically speaking.
We begin with There’s too much homework in this fucking class, as compared with There’s too much homework in this stupid class. To intensify exactly how stupid the class is, you can add really or very right before stupid to give you There’s too much homework in this very stupid class. Admittedly, this sentence sounds a little clunky. But even if it won’t win you a Pulitzer, it’s still English. You can generally add adverbs like very ahead of adjectives like stupid without fear. Same with inspiring: this very inspiring class. But what happens when you try it with fucking? You get There’s too much homework in this very fucking class. I don’t know about you, but I just can’t interpret this as English at all. It doesn’t seem grammatical—it doesn’t seem to me (or other native speakers I’ve asked) like a possible sentence in the language. In short, a sentence with profanity doesn’t follow the same rules as those without.
Here’s another stress test. Take a subtle variant of the same sentence. Suppose you put the word fucking not in the penultimate position but instead right after too, like this: There’s too fucking much homework in this class! Most native speakers I ask agree that this is a possible grammatical sentence of English. Again, that doesn’t mean that it’s the type of sentence you’ll see in a style guide or that your English teacher will make you recite. But remember, we’re interested in what people actually say, not in what they’re told to say (or not to say).
And notice what’s special about this sentence. Other words, like goddamn, could replace fucking, as in There’s too goddamn much homework in this class! Works fine. Same for damn, bloody, darn, and friggin. These all work. But all of a sudden, you can’t replace fucking with known adjectives. It doesn’t seem grammatical to say There’s too inspiring much homework in this class. And it’s not just adjectives: you can’t replace fucking with any of the other types of words it commonly patterns with, like quantifiers (some) or intensifiers (really).2 All of these give you clearly ungrammatical sentences, like There is too some much homework in this class! Apparently only profane words—or facsimiles of profane words, like friggin—can fit into this particular slot. This means that general rules of grammar can’t account for this particular sentence pattern. Instead, you must know special rules of grammar that apply only to profanity and friends.
Importantly, you can’t just toss fucking about willy-nilly. Hold out on the fucking in our sample sentence until the very end, and you get There is too much homework in this class fucking, which sounds pretty ungrammatical. So the rules you have internalized about fucking aren’t just more lax—you know precisely where fucking can go, what it can go with, and, importantly, where it can’t go. And what’s most fascinating about these special rules is that you know them implicitly. Before reading this chapter, you couldn’t have learned them through explicit instruction—I’d bet my shirt that no one ever sat you down to explain that fucking can go not only before a noun but also after a quantifier. You learned these rules through observation, induction, imitation, and trial and error. You know a lot about the grammar of fucking without ever having brought it to conscious awareness.
Here’s another example to tease your intuition. When you stick not into a sentence, you negate some part of its meaning. Compare Let’s sell the children with Let’s not sell the children. Important distinction. But this general rule meets its match when confronted with certain profane sentences. For example, compare You know jack-shit and You don’t know jack-shit. Is there any difference at all? Most people agree that both versions mean that you know nothing. So how can it be that not has no effect? Could we once more be in the presence of a special rule for profanity?
For a science of language, special rules like these are both an abomination and an invitation. They call into question the very property that makes human language so expressive and powerful: the ability to flexibly mix and match words with general rules. And yet, as our job is to describe and understand, we’re forced to confront them. What is the nature of these rules? What do you know about the grammar of swearing in your language? And why do we have these rules in the first place? These questions have driven language scientists to sully themselves a bit by digging into the nitty-gritty and exceptional details of dirty grammar. And so I invite you to reflect for perhaps the first but hopefully not the last time on some of the things you know—but don’t know you know—about the profane grammar of your language.
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Profane words in English occupy nearly every grammatical category. There are, of course, the familiar verbs (to fuck, to shit), nouns (a fuck, a shit), and so on. But one of the most grammatically bizarre is in evidence in sentences like the one I just mentioned: You don’t know jack-shit. Here, jack-shit is acting as something called a “minimizer.” You’ve probably never heard of such a thing, but still you use them all the time. If you had to come up with a nonprofane replacement, it would probably be the more frequent anything—that would give you You don’t know anything. In English, we have a variety of minimizers like anything that go along with negation and serve to emphasize how complete that negation is. These are words (or expressions) like at all, one bit, or a drop, all of which can be appended to negated sentences like You don’t know or He doesn’t drink. Some of these minimizing words are general, like at all, which you can stick into pretty much any negation: I do not skydive at all or It doesn’t hurt at all. Others are quite specific to the action, like a morsel in He didn’t eat a morsel or a drop, which appears only to be not spilled or not drunk.
Minimizers like these follow a general rule: they have to be used in a sentence that describes something nonfactual—a sentence stating explicitly that something isn’t the case. Negation with not is of course the best way to do this. So He doesn’t skydive provides a nice nonfactual home for at all. But a question is also somewhat nonfactual, because it questions whether something might be true. So you can stick at all and other minimizers into questions, like Do you skydive at all? Expressions of doubt work the same way because they also allow a shadow of possible nonfactuality to creep in: I doubt you skydive at all. And so on. But as soon as your sentence becomes factual—as soon as it asserts something as true—then you can’t use at all or its ilk. It wouldn’t make sense to say I skydive at all or He really wants to skydive at all. That’s a general grammatical rule about words like these. They’re only viable when the factuality of the statement is put linguistically in doubt.
But jack-shit and its profane peers flout the rule. You can say You don’t know jack-shit, using it in a negative context, but you can also just as easily say You know jack-shit. Same with dick—I don’t draw dick unless the price is right is fine, as is I draw dick unless the price is right. And other terms like crap, shit, fuck-all, and the like all behave the same way. For instance, You get fuck-all until you say “please” works just as well as the negated version.cThis special set of profane words and their strange behavior in this context have gained such notoriety among syntacticians (people who study grammar for a living—yes, this exists) that they’ve been given a name. Two names, actually. They’re sometimes called “vulgar minimizers,” which is an apt description because they’re both vulgar and they minimize what precedes them.3 But “vulgar minimizers” isn’t as evocative as their other name, “squatitives,” in honor of the special place of the word squat among them.4
As I said, this is exceptional behavior. You can say I don’t know anyone but not I know anyone. But there are a few other words that seem to behave something like the profane ones, dick and others, in that they can be used in both positive and negative contexts. And one of these, occasionally, is anymore. Most Americans are perfectly willing to say Honey badger doesn’t give a shit anymore. But what about Honey badger gives a shit anymore? Fascinatingly, there are actually regional differences on this. If you think that it sounds perfectly fine to say Honey badger gives a shit anymore, then you (or your parents) are probably from the Midwest, particularly Ohio and Pennsylvania. You have so-called positive polarity anymore—you can use it, just like dick, in the presence or the absence of negation. The rest of the country, and possibly the world, will strenuously object to this use, largely because they categorize anymore as requiring a negative context. The difference between positive polarity anymore and vulgar minimizers like dick or jack-shit is that sentences using anymore have different meanings when negated and not—I go there anymore and I don’t go there anymore mean different things, whereas You know jack-shit and You don’t know jack-shit mean about the same thing.
More than their relative flexibility, the really remarkable thing about squatitives like jack-shit is, of course, that the negative and the positive versions of the sentences seem to mean roughly the same thing. As I mentioned earlier, this really is quite strange because putting a not in a sentence usually reverses some component of the meaning. Let’s sell the children should mean roughly the opposite of Let’s not sell the children. So when you use profane words as minimizers, the affirmative and negated versions of the sentence are similar in meaning. You don’t know dick is roughly synonymous with You know dick. He doesn’t know jack-shit means the same thing as He knows jack-shit. It’s almost like we’re looking at the sentence version of the English flammable-inflammable mess.d
To be clear, I’m not talking about irony here. It’s always possible for a speaker (or writer) to say anything while really meaning the reverse. For example, you can say Mary doesn’t know jack-shit ironically to mean not what it literally means—that she doesn’t know anything—but instead to mean the reverse. For instance, Mary has spent twenty years as a veterinarian caring for orphaned kittens and puppies, so obviously she doesn’t know jack-shit about animals. Jack-shit and other squatitives make a sentence and its negated opposite unironically mean the same thing.
To a first approximation, these profane words seem to be subject to special rules that simply don’t apply to the rest of the language. They’re outliers, but not random ones. They form little coalitions that pattern alike among themselves but flout the rules that apply to nonprofane words.
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In Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, you’ll find the famous verse “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” While this particular sentence has had immeasurable social impact, linguistically speaking it’s grammatically unremarkable. The sentence is all constructed around the verb give, and in this sentence, it’s doing what it normally does. The sentence explicitly identifies both the things that are to be given (your tired, your poor, and so on) and also the recipient, me. Who me is, I suppose, is subject to interpretation—it could be Lady Liberty or more likely the nation she represents—but it’s important for give to have a recipient. It’s kind of the sine qua non of giving. You can’t give something without giving it to someone. Consequently, even when not explicitly stated in a sentence, the recipient of give is almost always implied and inferable from context. For example, the statement I don’t give handouts implies that there’s someone you don’t give handouts to. Of course, you can put this person in the sentence: I don’t give handouts to bums like you, Mr. Lebowski. But even when such a statement does not expressly identify the recipient, it goes without saying that someone is or isn’t getting something.
But profanity again is the exception. When you give profanely, and here I’m thinking specifically of giving a fuck, the rule about give having a recipient doesn’t appear to apply. You can give (or choose not to give) a fuck—without any potential recipient in mind. And the same goes for a shit, and a damn, and so on. For example, the famously resilient honey badger can reportedly be stung by a thousand bees, with what consequence? He doesn’t give a shit. At the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara asks Rhett Butler what she should do when he leaves. His answer: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. This kind of giving or nongiving—of shits, damns, and fucks—is grammatically special. You don’t mention the recipient: you don’t specify whom you don’t give a damn to. But it’s even more bizarre than this. Not only is there no explicitly mentioned recipient; there’s not even an implied one. We can tell for sure that there’s no implied recipient because you couldn’t even force a recipient into such sentences if you had to. It doesn’t make sense to say I don’t give you a fuck or I don’t give any fucks to you to mean I don’t care.
So why can’t you give a fuck to anyone? One reasonable explanation could be that this is merely a consequence of I don’t give a fuck being a fixed expression. Maybe it’s a set of words that implies a recipient but into which you can’t force one because those five words have to be said in exactly that order, as though I don’t give a fuck were one single word spelled with internal spaces. The problem with this argument is that the words in give a fuck are in fact quite flexible. You can make it passive: No fucks were given. Or you can be crystal clear: Not one single fuck was given. And you can modify the fuck that you’re not giving: it can be a flying fuck, the slightest fuck, or a single fuck. No, it’s not that give a fuck is too rigid to admit a recipient. It’s that there’s something about recipients that give a fuck doesn’t like.
You’re going to start detecting a trend here, because it seems, again, that there’s a special grammatical rule at play for give a fuck, one that also applies to give a shit, give a damn, and so on, but doesn’t pertain outside of the realm of profanity. It’s not that give a fuck is more lax, as in the case of fuckall and other squatitives. No, in this case, the grammar is actually more rigid for give a fuck than for giving anything else. The general characterization of give and how it works (it has an explicit or implicit recipient) doesn’t apply equally to all its uses. In order to use these profane expressions grammatically, you must know very specific things about how to make a sentence—grammatical patterns specific to particular uses of selected words.
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So we’ve now seen that in some cases profane grammar is more flexible, and in other cases it’s less flexible than the grammar of the language as a whole. But on the whole, the differences we’ve seen have been relatively superficial—subtle changes in specific ways that words can or cannot be used. How deep does the special behavior of profanity go? Are there ways in which profanity seems to follow its own, qualitatively different system of rules entirely? Maybe.
It’s generally agreed in grammar circles that every sentence has to have a subject. In English, you usually express the subject overtly. For example, look at the sentences in this paragraph. The first sentence has the subject it, which the verb is (contracted to ’s) agrees with. The next sentence has the subject you, which express agrees with. Now, sometimes a sentence has no overt subject. Imperatives are an example of this. In Look at the sentences in this paragraph, there’s no subject. But still we all know who’s doing the looking: the person to whom the imperative is directed. You, dear reader, are the subject of Look at the sentences in this paragraph. Imperative sentences like this still have a subject; it’s just implicit.
The idea that subjects can be implicit is a neat notion because it allows us to preserve the generalization about English sentences that they all have subjects. Some are overt; others are implicit. That’s believed to be a general rule of English. A very general rule. Science likes general rules because generalizations enable concise descriptions and explanations of diverse observations. Gravity explains both orbiting planets and plummeting skydivers, and that’s a good thing.
So suppose all sentences have subjects. Great. In that case, what’s the subject of Fuck you?5e It’s not obvious. You might be tempted to think that the you in the sentence is the subject. And certainly in the case of the similar sentence You fuck (a declaration of what you do), the subject—the one performing the action—is obviously you. But in Fuck you, the you can’t be the subject because you isn’t performing an action.
This is the topic of a classic piece of scholarship by James McCawley, a former University of Chicago linguist whose PhD from MIT was supervised by Noam Chomsky. By all accounts, McCawley was a polymath (for instance, he had several degrees in math), a prodigy (who started as a student at the University of Chicago at sixteen), and an inveterate prankster. Under the pseudonym of Quang Phuc Dong, ostensibly of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology (or SHIT), he wrote several seminal papers in what he called “scatolinguistics.” The first, “English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject,” deals with the grammar of Fuck you. McCawley died in 1999 and with him a lot of the fun of linguistics.
In that case, you might reasonably conjecture, Fuck you is probably an imperative. And if it’s an imperative, it has an implicit subject, just like Look at the sentences. But that can’t be true either. And we can tell for a very subtle grammatical reason that I’ll now attempt to explain.
Syntacticians pay close attention to how words can or can’t combine in order to figure out what’s really going on under the surface—in this case, whether something is a subject or not. Here’s a clever test we can use. When the subject and the object of a verb refer to the same person or thing, something special happens. The object adds -self to the end. For example, if I want to describe an act in which you cleaned yourself, I couldn’t say You cleaned you; I’d have to say You cleaned yourself, just like I cleaned myself, He cleaned himself, and so on. So we know that whenever we see these reflexive -self pronouns, the subject and the object are the same person. This is a kind of grammatical test you can apply to sentences.
The powerful thing about this test is that it also detects the implicit subjects of imperatives. If I wanted to tell you to clean yourself, then I would say Clean yourself, not Clean you. Because yourself is required, we know that the implicit subject of an imperative must be you. Neat. Further evidence that imperatives have you as an implicit subject. But notice what that means about Fuck you. If it were Fuck yourself, then we’d know that this was an imperative with you as the implicit subject—just like Clean yourself. And indeed, it’s possible to say Fuck yourself, but this means something different from Fuck you. Fuck yourself is an actual imperative—it’s a command for the subject, you, to perform an action, fuck, on an object, which is also you. But with Fuck you, the subject can’t be you because the object is you, not yourself. The subject has to be something or someone else.
So maybe Fuck you is just a special kind of imperative with a subject that’s not you. We can put Fuck you to a number of other grammar tests to diagnose whether it’s an imperative. And they all come back negative. For example, you can negate imperatives—for instance, Don’t read this sentence! But you can’t say Don’t fuck you! You can add please or do to the front of imperatives: Please read this sentence. Do look at this sentence. But there’s no way to interpret Please fuck you or Do fuck you. By all measures, Fuck you is not an imperative, and if it’s not an imperative, it doesn’t have an implicit subject, and because it also doesn’t have an overt subject, that means it has no subject at all.
It’s not just Fuck you that’s missing a subject. Other vulgar maledictions are in the same boat. Damn you works the same way. Notice the same difference between Damn you and Damn yourself that we saw before. Damn you isn’t telling you to perform an act of damning on yourself, but Damn yourself is. And again you can’t negate it to make Don’t damn you. Same with Screw you. It appears that Fuck you, Damn you, and Screw you aren’t imperatives. And as a result, none of them have a subject, not even an implicit one.
Right now, you might be thinking about God. As a subject, I mean. Couldn’t Damn you really be a shortened version of God damn you or May God damn you? And likewise for Fuck you, couldn’t it really be May God fuck you? It’s possible—at least for Damn you—that this is the historical source of the expression, as evidenced by the presence of God in goddamnit. But looking just at the grammar of the language as it’s used today, there’s no God left in Damn you or Fuck you, and we can tell by using the same reflexive pronoun test that showed us that you isn’t their subject. Suppose you want to denigrate not the person you’re talking to but some third party. You’d say Damn him or Fuck her. Well, it turns out that if the person you want to denigrate isn’t a person but a deity, then you can perfectly grammatically (albeit blasphemously) utter Fuck God or Damn God. And here’s the rub. If God is the subject of these sentences, then we shouldn’t be able to say Fuck God. It would have to be Fuck himself; God is the subject, so the direct object should agree with it. But you can’t say Fuck himself to mean Fuck God. And that implies that God is not the implicit subject of either Fuck God or Fuck you. They don’t appear to have any subject at all.
This is a big problem. These profane maledictions are breaking arguably the most important rule of grammar. All sentences are supposed to have subjects, whether overt or implicit. That was the laudable generalization we started with. It’s as if we’ve found one type of matter that the rules of gravity don’t apply to. And so one of two conclusions follow.
One: Fuck you doesn’t have a subject. But it’s grammatical. And if all grammatical sequences of words are sentences, then we have to conclude that some sentences, like Fuck you, can live without subjects. That’s going to be a hard pill to swallow. There’s an exception to gravity.
If you don’t like that, you do have another option. Conclusion two: all sentences still have subjects. But Fuck you and other maledictions are something other than sentences. The reasoning behind this would be the following syllogism: Sentences have to have subjects. Fuck you doesn’t have a subject. Therefore, Fuck you is not a sentence. By this logic, sentences make up only one of several types of things you know how to say in English. There are also other things, like epithets. Perhaps certain epithets follow their own, distinct rules of grammar. Sentences have subjects. Epithets need not. They’re a whole separate class of things people know how to say. This would be as big a deal for linguists as finding a type of matter that’s immune to gravity would be for physicists or discovering a new phylogenetic kingdom would be for biologists.
And it’s not just Fuck you. When you start to dig, you find that other profanity places you astride the horns of this same dilemma. Consider, for example, an utterance like White wedding, my ass! Is this a sentence? To begin with, it’s not clear what the subject is here. It might be white wedding, or it might be my ass. Or neither. But that’s not the real problem. Something else is missing. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s no verb. And it’s not like there’s an implied verb. What could the verb possibly be? You couldn’t say White wedding is my ass! Sentences need not just subjects but also verbs. If this is a sentence, it’s profoundly degenerate.
You can see the problem even in one-word utterances, like the isolated word Fuck! There’s one way to use this word that can, in fact, form a real sentence: an imperative one in which you are the implicit subject of a commanded action. For instance, it might be a command a breeder gives to her goldendoodles when they’re in heat. Fuck! But the more common way to use the same single word Fuck! does not form a normal sentence. When used as an expression of frustration, anger, or excitement, it has no subject. No one is being instructed to do anything to anyone else. The same ambiguity between sentence and epithet is present in Shit! or Crap! or any epithet that also happens to be a possible verb. Epithets appear to have their own rules of grammar.
And although these utterances might not be sentences that we could construct using the general rules of grammar we’ve reviewed so far, they are still subject to very precise grammatical constraints. For instance, consider the nuances surrounding White wedding, my ass! For one thing, you don’t have much leeway with whose ass it is—you couldn’t get away with saying White wedding, his ass! or White wedding, our asses! And it seems like it has to be the word ass or a near synonym in that last position. So you could say White wedding, my tuchus! or White wedding, my butt! But it would be harder (though possibly still acceptable) to use other parts of the body: White wedding, my hymen!
The upshot is this: Certain types of profanity, from Fuck you onward, belong to their own class, or classes, of utterance. They’re not sentences by any normal definition; nor are they abbreviations of full sentences that omit little bits. They’re their own class of thing that you can utter. There’s a chasm between the grammar of profanity and that of the language as a whole.
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And yet, despite this profound specialness, the profane utterances we’ve been looking at—even though they aren’t normal sentences—still follow some general grammatical rules. For instance, in White wedding, my ass- type sentences, even though the pronoun pretty much has to be my and the noun has to be a posterior-related body part, there’s nevertheless some flexibility. I believe it’s still grammatical to say White wedding, my fucking ass! or White wedding, my big fat Greek ass! That is, you can use the very same normal rules for putting things together into sentences, in these cases modifying nouns with adverbs, adjectives, and the like, that apply in the language in general. So these utterances live in a nebulous space. On the one hand, they’re a totally different type of thing—not like any sentence we know of. On the other, they can hook into the language’s general rules of grammar in limited ways. Profanity has its own grammar, but it is built on top of the general principles that govern the language as a whole.
Here’s another case of a specific grammatical pattern that still follows other general rules. The verb tear is usually transitive, meaning that it has a direct object. For instance, you might say I tore my hamstring. Here, I is the subject, the “tearer,” and my hamstring is the object, the thing affected by the tearing, or the “torn,” as it were. But sometimes, rarely, tear can have more than one object. It can be “ditransitive.” An example of ditransitive verb use is Mary tore me a new asshole. There are two grammatical objects, me and a new asshole.
Just like with give a fuck, there’s a little slack in this pattern. And this is where the rest of what you know about the grammar of your language comes in. The verb doesn’t have to be tear. You can also rip, ream, pound, or possibly even fuck someone a new asshole. And there’s a little leeway with the new asshole as well. It can be a new one, another asshole, or really anything that describes a new orifice. If I’m not mistaken, then, it would fit the pattern to say that you’re going to shag someone a supplementary shit shoot or hammer him home a hasty Hershey highway. Like give a fuck, this grammatical pattern imposes constraints on what can occur in it, within limits. But otherwise it behaves as you would expect, given the rest of the language.
So why do these profane grammatical patterns flout certain grammatical conventions of English while obeying others? In some cases, it’s hard to know. But perhaps not in all. There might be a hint of reason in this last pattern we looked at: tear someone a new asshole. Unlike general rules of grammar (the rule that sentences have subjects, for example), the patterns we’ve been looking at encode a very particular meaning or are tailored to a specific function. The tear him a new one pattern conveys the particular meaning that the person in the subject beat up the first object physically or verbally. And this meaning might explain how it patterns. Not just any verb can occur here—only verbs that can plausibly describe an act of orifice-creation qualify. And the verb takes not just any direct object. The first one has to be someone or something that can be beat up, and the second has to describe a new orifice. Could meaning or function impose constraints on the grammatical behavior of profane language?
This might be clearer in a different pattern of profane grammar. Consider where you can stick the fuck, specifically, when used in questions. The fuck can of course be inserted directly after what to make what the fuck. Certain other “wh-question words,” like who and why, work the same way: Who the fuck do you think you are? Why the fuck would I tell you?f But the king of these wh-question words really is what—the now pervasive acronym WTF usually refers to what the fuck rather than why or who the fuck. (Notice that the list of relevant wh-question words includes how, even though it doesn’t start with a wh-, as in How the fuck should I know? But it might not include which—many, but not all, English speakers find it ungrammatical to ask Which the fuck should I choose?) When used in this way, the fuck is largely interchangeable with the hell, the shit, the devil, the deuce, and a few others, with corresponding changes in intensity.
Much of this discussion is inspired by Fillmore, C. J. (1985). We miss you, Chuck.
This is yet another case where profanity is behaving differently from the rest of the language. You can insert the fuck and friends into wh-questions, but only wh-questions of a certain type. The rule appears to be that the wh-word has to be the very first word of the clause. So it’s grammatical to say What the fuck did you open that jar with? but not With what the fuck did you open that jar? You also can’t say You opened the jar with what the fuck?
These inserted fucks are also unique in the language because, as with the other profane patterns we saw before, there are no other words you can drop into just these places with these precise restrictions. For instance, it’s possible to insert did you say into a question directly after the wh-word to ask for clarification, as in What did you say you opened that jar with? But in this case, it’s also totally acceptable to put the with at the front, as in With what did you say you opened that jar? or even to embed it: You opened the jar with what did you say? In other words, the rules for profanity are similar to but different from those for the rest of the language. This should seem quite familiar.
But this pattern is also revealing for the question at hand: Is the grammatical behavior of this pattern constrained by the meaning or function of these words?
Consider the following facts: You can embed a wh-clause in a larger sentence. A clause is just a sentence-like thing inside another sentence. For instance, a sentence like I can’t imagine what he cooked contains the clause what he cooked. Now, in this case, the fuck can be inserted just fine, right after the what, because what is still the beginning of the embedded clause. This gives you the fully grammatical I can’t imagine what the fuck he cooked. So far so good. But you can’t always stick the fuck there. Sentences that seem superficially quite similar do not seem grammatical to most people. For example, what do you think about I can’t disclose what the fuck he cooked. If you agree that this sentence seems strange, or at least stranger than I can’t imagine what the fuck he cooked, then this must be due to a difference between imagine and disclose. Why is imagine more welcoming to the fuck than disclose is?
They mean different things. In the case of imagine what he cooked, which can have the fuck in it, the thing that he cooked is unknown, wondered about. In the case of disclose what he cooked, the thing that he cooked is some specific thing that the speaker knows but doesn’t want to reveal. So could it be that sentences that you can embed the fuck in express uncertainty about the event? Let’s see. You can say I have no idea what the fuck he cooked. And sure enough, it expresses uncertainty and allows the fuck. But when the sentence expresses certainty, then all of a sudden the fuck seems out of place: I can’t eat what the fuck he cooked sounds strange to many people, as does This is what the fuck he cooked. In other words, the grammar of the fuck is in part constrained by what the sentence means. You insert the fuck after what to express incredulity at something unknown. And as a result, sentences that don’t express uncertainty don’t allow you to insert the fuck. This shows that grammar cares about meaning. What you know about how to put words together is sensitive to the meaningful work you’re trying to do with grammar.g
One final thing that’s interesting about this case is that the profane word (fuck or hell) looks like a noun—it follows the, as nouns are wont to do—but it doesn’t behave like just any noun. That is, if we care about what people know about the grammar of their language, part of what we want to know is what categories they’re using in their grammatical rules. For instance, English appears to have a rule in which the can precede nouns in general, from aardvark to zythology. (Zythology is of course the study of beer making.) But the rule of grammar that allows us to create and understand what the fuck is far less general. You can’t insert just any noun whatsoever after a wh-word: What the aardvark is on your plate? seems out of place, as does How the zythology am I supposed to drink this? So how can we describe what people know about the fuck or the hell? What rule of grammar allows these words to be inserted as we’ve seen they can be? It certainly can’t be a rule of grammar stating that nouns in general can be inserted after a wh-question and the. It must be more specific. It must say that a short list of specific nouns are available for this particular rule.
So you might again be tempted to think that the hell or the fuck is just a fixed expression or “idiom,” or maybe that What the hell is the idiom. If so, then you just memorize the whole thing and forget about applying rules. What the hell is basically just a big word with some spaces in it. But the problem is that hell and fuck in this expression are variable—they act a lot like any regular, lively noun. For instance, they’re available for certain normal grammatical operations you perform on nouns in general. You can modify nouns by putting adjectives in front of them. That works here too: What the bloody hell? You can add an adverb then an adjective, as in What the everlasting bloody hell? The point is that hell seems to be acting a lot like a noun here, just with very limited flexibility. It has to be preceded by the and not, for example, a. What a hell! doesn’t cut it. And it has to be singular, as there’s no sense to be made from What the hells!
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There’s another reason why some profane patterns follow or refuse to follow just the rules they do. And that has to do with their history. To see this, let’s look at two other uses for the fuck.6 Although they look quite similar, each has its own idiosyncratic meaning and subtly different grammar.
The first is found in sentences like Step the fuck down or Shut the hell up. We’ll call this the Get-the-hell-out-of-here construction, based on the earliest known attested use, from 1895, which was that, verbatim.7 Superficially very similar but, as we’ll see, clearly distinct is a second use of the + expletive. It looks like this: That girl knocked the hell out of that piñata or I’m going to eat the fuck out of this lasagna. Let’s call this one the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction, after the earliest known usage from an 1885 romance novel: Loubitza will beat the devil out of her when she gets her home.8
Why should we think that Shut the hell up is a different beast from Knock the hell out of that piñata? After all, they have striking similarities. They seem to admit the same taboo words (shit, hell, fuck, and so on), and they display the same taboo form: the + expletive. But there are several reasons to think that you actually follow distinct rules for them: they have different properties and yield to different constraints.h
Hoeksema, J., and Napoli, D. J. (2008) have a thorough and delightful exploration of these two constructions, which I’ve leaned on heavily for the following.
First, the expletive seems mandatory for the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction but optional for the Get-the-hell-out-of-here construction. We know this because taking the fuck or the hell out of Get the hell out or Step the fuck down or Shut the fuck up produces perfectly grammatical sentences: Get out, Step down, and Shut up. Their meaning just becomes a little less intense, as you would expect when you omit profanity. But the same doesn’t hold when you take the epithet out of The girl knocked the hell out of that piñata. That produces the ungrammatical The girl knocked out of that piñata. Strange. Removing the fuck from I’m going to eat the fuck out of this lasagna yields I’m going to eat out of this lasagna, which can’t be interpreted as describing the same sort of thing that eating the fuck out of this lasagna does. (It might be interpretable, but with a totally different meaning, where the lasagna becomes a container for the food being eaten.)
Optionality of the epithets is only one way in which Beat-the-devil and Get-the-hell differ. They also display different behavior when you apply other grammatical rules to them. For instance, in English, you can make an active sentence like John ate the carrots passive, so that it becomes The carrots were eaten by John. When you try to apply the passivization rule to the two constructions we’re looking at, you again see that they differ. Specifically, Beat-the-devil-out-of-her sentences can be made passive, but Get-the-hell-out-of-here sentences cannot. For instance, you can say The piñata got the hell knocked out of it by the girl and maybe even The hell got knocked out of the piñata by the girl. But take a Get-the-hell-out-of-here sentence like Get the hell out of here, and you’ll be hard pressed to passivize it. Neither The hell was gotten out of here nor Here was gotten the hell out of does justice to the active original. These two types of sentences, although they superficially contain similar inserted epithets, actually behave quite differently. The best we can do is call Get-the-hell-out-of-here and Beat-the-devil-out-of-her different grammatical patterns and try to understand why they work the different ways they do.
And as I hinted at the outset of this section, we can find part of the explanation for their different and idiosyncratic properties in their histories. As its earliest use would suggest, the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction was originally patterned off of an existing sentence form in English. They beat the devil out of her is a sentence of the very same form as They pulled the survivors out of the ship or They forced the mayor out of office. Namely, there’s a subject (they), a verb that describes acting on something with enough force for it to move (beat, pull, force), then an object that is forced to move (the devil, the survivors, the mayor), and finally a direction it is forced to move in (out of him, out of the ship, out of office). This pattern is often called the caused-motion construction because it describes someone acting on something forcefully to cause it to move.9
In other words, originally, sentences like Loubitza will beat the devil out of her when she gets her home were actually not unambiguous instances of a special Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction. Instead, they were probably talking about actually acting on someone (her) via a forceful action (beating) to make something (the devil) move in some direction (out of her). Many examples of the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction remain ambiguous to this day, hovering between a caused-motion interpretation and a Beat-the-devil-out-of-her interpretation. For instance, does If you keep misbehaving, I’ll knock the hell out of you mean that upon completion, the hell (namely the bad intentions and behavior) will have been removed from you? Does They’re going to beat the shit out of me describe literal or metaphorical feces being punched out of the victim?
The origins of the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction explain its idiosyncratic behavior. The epithet is mandatory because the hell or the fuck or the devil was, at the origin (and perhaps continuing in some ambiguous cases to this day), an actual thing being acted on such that it would move. The caused-motion construction generally makes this particular component mandatory. For instance, you can’t omit the mayor in They forced the mayor out of office; that produces the ungrammatical They forced out of office. And the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction, like the caused-motion construction it derives from, allows passivation without hesitation: The mayor was forced out of office by them. In other words, the Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction behaves the way it does in terms of grammar because of patterns established when it was still being created.
The Beat-the-devil-out-of-her construction originated in ambiguity. But over the more than one hundred years of its use, this construction has expanded to include other cases that we can no longer interpret via the originating caused-motion construction. For instance, I’m going to eat the fuck out of this lasagna clearly doesn’t imply that there’s fuck in the lasagna that I will somehow remove via eating. And this construction seems to be on the move in that more and more verbs are being recruited to it. It now seems to many people perfectly grammatical to say I’m going to sprint the fuck out of this marathon or After this semester, I’m going to know the hell out of physics. These are clearly not about causing motion, but remarkably they still exhibit the hallmark grammatical properties carried forward from Beat-the-devil’s origins. The epithet is still mandatory: you have to say you’ll know the hell out of physics; you can’t say you’ll know out of physics.i So our grammatical minds are littered with traces of the history that these particular profane expressions have traversed.
However, in some cases, it cannot now be passivized: The hell will be known out of physics by me and Physics will be known the hell out of by me are both quite ungrammatical. See Hoeksema, J., and Napoli, D. J. (2008) for an explanation.
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Profanity has a grammar all its own, after a fashion, but it’s not a tidy affair. If the grammar of a language is a system of regularities—uniform patterns of behavior—then profanity simultaneously taps into some of the regularities and imposes a number of distinct subregularities all its own. Sometimes this produces utterances that, by any of the standard criteria, are not sentences at all. At other times it produces sentences that appear to be missing components or that flout the overriding rules of the language. Some of these subregularities we can explain by appealing to the meaning they’re used to convey, the function they’re put to, or the history of how they came to be.
When we broaden our scope a bit, it’s fair to speculate that other types of language, aside from profanity, may work similarly. There are probably specialized subgrammars for each of the purposes we put language to. There’s a special way we recite numbers and dates. Recipes have a particular formula (compare the standard English Mix the eggs into the flour and beat them together with Recipese: Mix eggs into flour. Beat together). So does speech directed at children or pets. And of course we know that different groups of people use different rules of grammar and that some people who can easily flit between such subgroups may even have the capacity for language in multiple distinct dialects of a language, with different rules of grammar. Although we began with profanity, a bigger question is really at play here. When we talk about grammar and try to understand how it works in the human mind, should we be talking about a single grammar for a language or a patchwork of subgrammars specialized for particular purposes? The structure of the grammar seems to be shaped by what you’re trying to do with it.
I’m all for simplicity. And it would be far simpler if grammar would just keep to itself. Let words convey meaning so grammar can just be in the business of putting them together into bigger structures. But human language doesn’t appear to work this way. Instead, specific grammatical choices seem to carry with them—or to be driven by—the meanings and functions they’re paired with. The question that remains is, how much of language is like this? What’s the balance between the specific, meaningful, idiosyncratic patterns we’ve been looking at here and the ostensible patterns of grammar that are truly general and truly meaning-free? Profanity raises the question, but we don’t yet have the answer.