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When posting on Writers.SE, can I curse like a sailor?

  • I'd like to point out that the mods here can't set this policy, but we can decide how we implement it here. If you think that the policy itself is misguided, you can go over to Meta Stack Overflow (which governs all Stack Exchange sites, including this one) and vote appropriately; the top-voted answer that forbids all naughty language is currently winning by not very much at all. – Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 0:19
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    Although strictly read, I could write something like, "Why pad your novel with bilgewater? That's mizzenmasting ridiculous!" and that would pass muster. :) – Lauren Ipsum May 27 '12 at 0:39
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No

Stack Exchange policy is clear on forbidding profanity:

Expletives are not acceptable behavior on meta or any other Stack Overflow site. If you can't effectively communicate what you need to say without resorting to lowest common denominator cursing, then keep it to yourself.

The currently-upvoted answer is a declaration by Jeff Atwood, and it’s official StackExchange policy. A primary reason for this policy is the desire to maintain a tone on our site which is professional, welcoming to all, and inoffensive. But really, it being policy is enough for Writers.SE to be bound by it.

Profanity is Subjective

Different people have different opinions on what constitutes profanity. Most people consider some words to be “stronger” or more vulgar than others. This policy is not an invitation to seek out borderline expletives - use common sense, and if you find yourself looking for an expletive that isn’t really dirty, then the better path is simply not to use an expletive at all. To steal KitFox's reaction to this, if a bunch of writers can’t figure out how to express themselves without using profanity, then we’ve got bigger problems.

On the other hand (and equally importantly), don’t beat yourself over the head with this. If you’re pretty sure you’re not using words likely to be seen as inappropriate, then you’re probably OK.

Profanity is Context-Sensitive

Both in writing and in moderating, always be aware that profanity depends heavily on context. Examples range from popular writing dictums (AIC;HOK and Sturgeon’s Law are “Ass in Chair; Hands on Keyboard” and "ninety percent of everything is crap”, respectively) to proper names which sound kind of dirty.

Here, too, use your judgement. We have no intention of singling out any particular word or syllable for “sounding dirty” when it’s used perfectly reasonably.

We’re Not Censoring

We’re not going to go around correcting every use of “damn” or “hell” anybody ever posts. We’ve done that somewhat so far, mostly to make policy clear, but we agree that this level of attention is more annoying than it is helpful.

So our new guideline is simply this: anybody can edit or flag posts that bother them. The occasional colorful expletive, inoffensively applied, probably doesn’t actually bother anybody. Stronger language, or greater frequency, will probably draw more attention. Simply put, we’ll be editing whatever bothers people - no more and no less.

The moderators will brook no arguments against reasonable flags and edit requests, even if other community members consider the content acceptable.

Offending others is never OK

Practically an aside. It hardly needs saying that deliberate offensiveness is never OK - whether it involves “offensive language” or not.

Offensive language can sometimes dovetail with offensive behavior; but each can occur without the other. If you feel somebody is being offensive, derogatory, unpleasant or impolite to others, please flag.

We discuss anything

All the above applies to using profanity in general. However, the discussion of profanity is sometimes on topic (for example, in this post). Therefore, if the subject of a question requires the use of profanity or “impolite” subjects, that’s fine. Discussions of erotica (or, heck, porn scripts) are on topic. Critique questions including samples of real writing do not require any sort of cleanup or bowdlerization. And so on and so forth.


Any further questions or issues can be raised in comments or in additional answers to this question.

  • Please check my edit and revert if need be; I changed your link to link to the question and not a particular answer. (The difference between the answer you linked and the runner-up is currently very slight.) – Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 4:14
  • @NeilFein: In all the discussions I've read and had, Jeff's answer is seen as binding, not because of the votecount but because it's Jeff. I think it'd take an "official" announcement to make any "official" change. – Standback May 25 '12 at 4:19
  • Then why was this even put to a vote? – Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 4:25
  • @NeilFein: It's SE. You can't not put things to a vote :P Similar to how this question has vote buttons, but you can't actually determine SE policy here. – Standback May 25 '12 at 4:28
  • But we can determine how Writers interprets that policy, which is kind of the point. – Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 4:29
  • And SE can post stuff and not allow it to be voted on if they like; there's the official blog, after all. They have decided not to. – Neil Fein May 25 '12 at 4:29
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No - usually

Expletives themselves are not a problem, they are a symptom of a deeper problem. We do need to address that deeper concern, but let's do it for the right reasons.

Why do we care about all of this?

People often look at Stack Exchange as a special kind of web forum, where they can express themselves, find a sense of community with like-minded web denizens. But Stack Exchange is not meant to be any of these things. Stack Exchange us a game, one where users write questions and answers and are rewarded with reputation points. The community respects people with a lot of rep - I know I do.

The point here is that this site's primary objective is not to be a community or event to help people, but to generate quality content. (Those other things do happen, and it's an intended, happy side effect, because it keeps us all coming back here.)

Good content attracts pageviews, and that (I assume) makes money for Stack Exchange, which lets them pay for expensive sports cars and caviar-flavored martinis, and (by the way) pay developers and community managers and graphic designers and keep on top of the bandwidth bill.

Why does Stack Exchange have a policy on cursing?

I think that the gist of this network-wide policy is that this string of sites is meant to be used for "professionals". The word "professional" here presumably means "safe for work". Would you put salty language in a work email? Therefore, posts that have strings of cursing all throughout them would be looked at as unprofessional, rather than expert-level treatises on their topics. So there's a stigma to cursing, it's a perceived hit to that site quality I mentioned.

A critique of a section of a book with real, actual sailors talking like they do? I'm not gonna go redact someone's book because some people might be squeamish. Asking about the use of cursing in specific circumstances? Writers need to worry about this, and I don't think anyone wants to censor questions like that. The use of profanity for valid artistic or academic or critical reasons isn't the problem here.

Clamp down on the behavior, not the words

Most of the time, this will be a self-correcting problem. Users have judgment, and they can use it to decide when it's important to actually use the words and when to effin' hint at them. Someone makes a mistake on that? The community (or mods) can edit and leave a comment ("please don't curse like this") when it's a one-time or rare thing.

English Language & Usage is fine with questions about curse words, and some users just go***mn censor them and some don't. When the situation is one where one needs to use a word to talk about it, I think it's fine to leave it all up to the discretion of individuals.

But language that's gratuitously blue? That's another matter.

We should not clamp down on particular words, because - making a list of forbidden words would just be an exercise in pedantry and bureaucracy. Do we need to check this list every time we see a bad word? Ah, no thank you. I'm not here to censor every use of words on a list. We have filtering software that can do that better than I can.

In other words, talking about cursing, or about text that uses it? That's all good. Using expletives to ream someone a new one? Not so good.

Anything in the middle? We'll figure it out when we get to it.

In summary

We call cursing "heated language" for a good reason: People who are angry and being uncivil are more likely to use it. So what I suggest is that we punish the behavior, and not the symptom.

What we need to clamp down on is nasty behavior, not nasty language.

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I think one example of a situation where profanity not only could be acceptable but possibly even should be acceptable is in a request for a critique. While I may not care to read profanity when I read for pleasure, I acknowledge that there are certain works that make tactful and even necessary use of it to help tell the story or to portray a character. If someone is asking for a critique to help determine whether or not they went over the top, then I would be willing to consider that.

On the other hand, if the profanity is used in an answer or a comment and is more of a reflection of a person's behavior or attitude, then I would definitely not consider that acceptable or appropriate. I know SE tries to establish policies that are consistent across all sites, but I believe this is one example where we need to look at how it is being used and what the original intent may have been.

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