English Language and Taboo

Shocking and controversial language is often dismissed as unacceptable or inappropriate. However, we will discuss the role such language plays in communication and society.

Politically Correct language edit

  • People first language
  • Disempowering shocking language


Study Questions:

  1. Should we control language use when dealing with sensitive issues?
  2. Can we use language to change people's perception on others?
  3. Do you agree with Heston's assertion that "social protocol [...] stifles and stigmatizes personal freedom"?

Assignment: Choose one of the study questions above. Write 300 words in a formal essay style exploring your research and ideas about it. Focus on writing composed, concise and accurate English.

Swearing edit

  • Shocking language
  • Euphemism and their uses

As language learners this is an opportunity to explore the rich vocabulary of the English language. The relationship between swearing and its social context is complicated and interesting. There is a tendency for swear words to not feel as strong or as powerful when they are not from our native language. Exploring the real meaning of some of these words should help ensure you understand their use and their intention.


Study Questions:

  1. Why and when do we swear?
  2. How and why do we judge people who use bad words?
  3. Is it important to know what swear words mean?

Assignment: Analyse and annotate Wash Your Mouth Out as though preparing a written commentary. This is a timed activity, spend 30 minutes analysing and 10 minutes editing and refining your ideas into an essay plan. Then compare your analysis with the following sample commentary.

Sample Analysis of ‘Wash your mouth out!’ edit

'Wash Your Mouth Out!' is online discussion forum on the topic of swearing and bad language, linked to the BBC 'Your Voice' discussion forum website. The author presents 'starter' issues with the intention of inviting the general public to react, the purpose is to encourage everyone to respond and get engaged with the topic. As the author's objective is to initiate a reaction she both engages and provokes her reader. This analysis will explore the ways in which the writer utilises language and style to combine these seemingly contrasting purposes.

The writer initially establishes an intentionally onesided point of view so as to spark a reaction from the reader. The use of interrogative sentences (questions) as subheadings directly addresses the reader. "Swearing demonstrates a poor command of English? Can't they think of anything else to say?" These challenge the audience by expressing a view you would expect from an older generation commenting on the use of swearing amongst young people. This stance is reinforced by the emboldened subheading ‘Wash your mouth out!”. This expression refers to the old fashioned threat of having your mouth washed out with soap for saying something bad, evoking connotations of antiquated punishments and the associated culture. The piece itself however argues against these conservative ideas, positing the view of a younger audience who see swearing as a functional and accepted language tool. This juxtaposition of perspectives serves to capture the audience on both sides of the debate, engaging traditionalists through headings they will identify with, and engaging modernists through the pro-swearing arguments. 

The main arguments supporting swearing as an accepted part of complex English language use are, firstly that it plays a unique and "particular role", and secondly that swearing has its own grammar rules, suggesting that only those with advanced language skill can master it correctly.  The author sites the renowned linguist David Crystal in evidencing some of the complexities of the grammatical structure of swearing in English. The origin of the quotations gives the argument authority while presenting new ideas “Damn, for example, cannot be used with a preceding personal pronoun (*You damn!) and arse cannot be followed by one (*Arse you!)”. This particular quotation however, exemplifies one of the most interesting aspects of the text in my opinion, its incongruity. Crystal's serious tone and linguistic vocabulary juxtaposed with swearwords seems absurd, thus reinforcing the ridiculousness of swearing as referred to in the second paragraph (“try shouting “Shoes!” or “Shrimp!” It would make as much sense”). As the author is trying to be controversial whilst sounding authoritative, in an attempt to achieve their purpose of provocation of the audience, the unsuitability of swearwords for a formal context is heightened.

The difficulty of writing about swearing and bad language in a formal way is reflected in the way the author shifts from formal to informal style throughout. “Swearing is more common in informal situations than in formal ones – swearing down the pub with a bunch of beery mates is normal, swearing during a court hearing (especially if you are the judge) is not.” In this particular example the sentence starts in a formal, matter of fact, declarative tone and then changes. The use of the dash, the alliterative and colloquial expression “bunch of beery”, and through the ironic humour of alluding to a judge swearing in court (breaking socially constructed codes of behavior), together create informality appropriate to a discussion forum webpage and appealing to the wide audience of web readers. The contrast of formal and informal however, arguably undermines the sophistication of the arguments. The writer's intention of provoking a response in as many readers as possible is also fulfilled through the brevity and the variety of the arguments presented. The series of short paragraphs, each introducing a new idea, allows a range of points to be presented in a short time. The argument doesn't develop as an essay would but rather takes a broad range of points to incite opinionated responses from a broad audience. In addition, the webpage layout with additional information and links to loosely related pages, in link boxes on the right of the page allow a reader to explore the topic further, should they choose. All of these aspects serve to interest as many readers as possible.

As outlined in the introduction, the writer is looking to not only engage readers’ curiosity but also to provoke them into responding. The tone is particularly effective in achieving this because many of the points are presented as facts, despite not having any supporting information or evidence and primarily being opinions. “Swear words persist because they’re a necessary and natural part of any language”; “Swear words are useful because they’re naughty.”; “The vital thing to remember is that most people who swear a lot are quite capable of not swearing when necessary.” These three examples demonstrate unsubstantiated opinions which come across to the reader as facts because of the declarative confidence of the writing. The tone encourages a reader to either agree or contradict the statements being made, but most importantly it encourages a reaction.

The above analysis has explored how this webforum opinion article is very effective in achieving its purpose of evoking a reaction in a reader because of the use of opinion, bias and opposing perspectives. The incongruity of the formal and ‘bad’ language adds interest for the reader and highlights, through how awkward it sounds, how this is not a topic often discussed. The wide range of information and the use of humour ensure that a diverse audience would be engaged by the piece which is followed directly but the link to the “comments board”, encouraging readers to immediately respond and become part of the discussion, and reminding them their opinion is valued. Style, language, structure and tone unite to make this column especially effective in achieving its purpose.

Using the following assessment criteria try to grade your own essay plan and the commentary above. A good analysis may:

  1. Notice the genre of a web based discussion forum article
  2. Define some of the variety of arguments and perspectives offered
  3. Analyse the use of short sentences and paragraphs to make the content accessible
  4. Comment on the purpose of initiating discussion
  5. swearing is useful and fundamental to language
  6. Acknowledge the argument that swearing is increasing

An excellent analysis may:

  1. Notice the contradiction between the title and the content
  2. Show awareness of the argument that swearing doesn't not necessarily lead to social decline
  3. Analyse the shifting formal to informal tone
  4. Describe the use of academic and emotive language in arguing
  5. Analyse of how the writer provokes the reader through opinion and biased argument
  6. Comment on how effective the structure of the text is