The Frontal Cortex

Grammar and Cursing

Here’s Vaughan on a neat grammatical shortcut:

Whilst drinking with a psycholinguist (say that after a few pints) I was taught a useful way of quickly working out the stressed syllable in any English word – something which is apparently called the ‘fuck test’.

Simply insert the word ‘fucking’ into the word, as if you were using the swear word for emphasis, and the syllable that follows the ‘fucking’ is the stressed syllable.

For example, absolutely -> abso-fucking-lutely. The stressed syllable is the third: i.e. absolutely. It works for every multi-syllable word I’ve found so far.

On a related note, Steven Pinker aims for an explicit warning label in the latest TNR. I actually thought his chapter on cursing was one of the less illuminating chapters in The Stuff of Thought, which is, overall, a very illuminating book. Pinker spends fifty pages parsing the semantics of cursing, only to conclude that curse words are “connected to negative emotion”. You don’t say.


  1. #1 CRM-114
    October 11, 2007

    That’s posi-bloody-tively brilliant.

  2. #2 amybuilds
    October 11, 2007

    My grandmother used to say that only the unintelligent swore because the intelligent could find a suitable alternative for expressing anger.

    On a related note, my father says that his mother would have benefited from a loud “Aw Shit” every once in a while.

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    October 11, 2007

    Pronunciation != grammar.

    Also: what other kind of linguist is there?

  4. #4 JO'N
    October 12, 2007

    The “fucking” rule is not quite that simple — for instance, one can say either “unbe-fucking-lievable” (in accordance with the rule) or “un-fucking-believable” (which disagrees with the rule).

    @Pierce: there are a lot of kinds of linguists, broadly defined by what aspect of language they study (phonology, syntax, semantics, discourse) and/or by what kinds of data they use (a text corpus like the web, collected speech, their own intuitions, experiments). The experimentalists, in general, are the ones known as “psycholinguists”, although there are other institutional/cultural/social factors that go into that kind of self-identification.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 12, 2007

    I’d say that only works about 70 percent of the time.

    I’d say “conver-fucking-sation,” for example, which breaks the rule.

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