When to Use Bad English

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada “Editing Goes Global” conference in Toronto on June 12, 2015. Headings are PowerPoint slides.

Title slide

As editors, we’re here to make sure the text doesn’t look sloppy or uneducated. We’re expected to uphold standards of good grammar, and – no matter what the text – keep it from using bad English. Right?

Rhett Butler

Frankly, sometimes we shouldn’t give a damn. And, more importantly, sometimes we should give a damn. And a shit. And a colloquialism. And maybe even a grammatical error.

Really? Yes. Our job is to make sure that the English in the document is appropriate, certainly. But there’s a difference between bad English and inappropriate English. English that is too informal is inappropriate in many places, but English that is too formal is inappropriate in many others.

What we want to do is this:

Make sure the text produces the right effect on the intended audience.

Let’s start by looking at a recent example of grammatical rectitude at the expense of effectiveness: an arrantly silly article published in People magazine (I know, right?) looking at grammar “errors” found by running Fifty Shades of Grey through an electronic grammar checker that is currently promoting itself very heavily. Nearly all of their objections were silly, and some were flat wrong, but I’ll look at just a couple now.

“I open my eyes, and I’m draped in Christian Grey” —> “I open my eyes, and I am draped in Christian Grey”

They’re not picking on the “and” in place of, say, “When I open my eyes, I am” et cetera. No, apparently contractions are just too informal.

Too informal for what! This book is what has generally been referred to as pornography. You want the brown paper package to have a bowtie on it?

“He really, really wants this” —> “He really wants this”

Extra words add unnecessary length to your writing! Yes, that’s right, in the world of these people, “really, really,” far from being an expression of the eager emphasis of a young narrator, is just an overly wordy way of saying “really.” But wait – some people will tell you to leave out “really” because it doesn’t really add anything. I mean it doesn’t … add anything. So really, I mean actually, she just wanted to say “He wants this!” Boy, now that we have stripped the character’s voice out, we can get down to the true version of Fifty Shades, which sounds like two computers talking to each other. Fifty Shades of Annual Report. (Actually, I’ll get back to using bad English even in annual reports.)

“He is totally beguiling, and I’m bewitched” —> “He is totally beguiling, and he has bewitched me”


Do I really need to say anything here?

The passive voice is not a grammatical error. I might add that the repetitious structure of the altered version is often counselled against too. But some people think the passive voice is bad English.

Lesson one in when to use bad English:

Use “bad English”…
…when it’s not bad English.

Pay attention to the style and effectiveness of the writing, of course. We hope you have an ear for voice. But don’t pick on things for being wrong when they’re not.

Now, why do we say things? Why do we write things? Is it just to show people that we know the rules? Is all written text simply an enormous spelling bee? Of course not. You use language to produce a specific effect on a specific audience.

We use language to produce an effect on a specific audience.

Your job as an editor or writer is to make sure that it produces that effect as well as possible, without producing bad effects that undermine it. Don’t choose words that will make people snicker or think of unpleasant things. Don’t say things in ways that will irritate your audience. But also make sure you know who your most important audience are.

Know your audience.

Your audience is very seldom composed principally of other editors or, worse, grammar pedants. Everybody has ideas about grammar and expectations of it, of course, and sloppiness will usually show badly. But there are some little things that a small set of the population will notice, and may become very exercised about, that other people will not notice at all. These are what we call “dog whistles.”

Beware of dog whistles.

Don’t centre your edits on things that can only be perceived by an in-group set if that set isn’t who you’re selling to. In fact, some of those little details that will win you the everlasting friendship of the picky set – at least until you make your next error – will make your content stiff or unnatural to the people you’re actually trying to reach.

Use them to whistle up the right dogs, not the wrong ones.

On the other hand, you can use dog whistles to your advantage to target a specific group: choices of vocabulary, for instance. Want to get evangelical Christians energized? You might have success with the word “integrous,” which may not strike you as a viable word but which turns out to be in regular use among some sets of evangelical Christians. If you’re aiming at an audience of internal medicine doctors, be aware that “gut” is a standard term among them – they don’t see it as less precise or more casual than “stomach” or “intestines”; in fact, it’s a specifically defined term that covers more than either “stomach” or “intestines.”

Know your genres and registers.

But it’s not just audience. The same people will expect different language in different places. Obviously! Do you expect the same language in an instruction manual as in a novel? Different kinds of texts belong to different genres, which have different expectations for vocabulary, syntactic tendency, and structure. And even within the same kind of text, you can have different registers – tones appropriate to different attitudes towards the content, the audience, and the situation.

It just happens that a linguist named Douglas Biber has done a splendid amount of detailed research on the grammar used in different genres and registers. It turns out that while there are some genres you can’t do with bad English, there are some you almost can’t do without bad English. I’m going to look at just one of several dimensions he’s found are factors in differentiating these styles. This dimension relates pretty directly with formality:

Involved versus informational

The more involved you are, the more engaged, the less cool and withdrawn and abstracted, the more you tend to use certain grammatical turns, and the less you tend to use others. Here’s the complete set…


[table 6.1, Biber 142]

…I’m not going to go over it all. I’m going to point out a few key factors in signaling that what you’re saying or writing is relatively involved:

  • Private verbs are verbs like assume, believe, doubt, and know; they’re the number one signal that you’re personally involved, reasonably enough. But…
  • dropping that in relative clauses and using contractions are the next two most important details, and they signal an informal approach to grammar. They show involvement even more than present-tense verbs do.
  • You’ll notice that be as the main verb is also positively weighted. It’s not an error, of course, but it’s something that you may well learn to avoid in writing and editing. And with good reason, generally… but it tends to come with the involved turf.
  • Further down but still positively weighted are sentence-final prepositions.
  • What are characteristics of uninvolved, heavily informational types of communication? Lots of nouns, prepositions, and long words.

I’m willing to bet most of you already have something of an intuitive feel for this distinction and how to maintain it. Well, now you have scientific support for it. But what kinds of texts are more involved and what are more informational?


[Figure 6.1, Biber 146]

The all-caps ones are spoken; the italic ones are written. You can see that – reasonably enough – the more involved types are spoken, spontaneous, and personal. Remember this. Remember this because sometimes you want a text to be spontaneous and personal, and you can cue that with a tendency to use these features. Remember this because if you’re dealing with fiction, a character who talks like an essay may not be as engaging and believable to the reader as one who talks like, well, talk… and that’s not just sentence length, it’s the use of more or less formal and impersonal grammatical features.

Different genres of fiction fall in a reasonably unsurprising way on this scale: romance most involved, then mystery and adventure, with sci-fi a little less so. Look here, though: press reportage is among the least involved. You might think newspapers are meant to be engaging and readable. Well, they’re striving to seem impartial and objective. News articles are not the place to use “bad English.”


Use “bad English”…
…to set the tone

Let’s have a look at how we might change a bit of text just by tweaking a few little grammatical parameters.

I think you’ll be a fun person to work with.

Private verb (“think”), dropped relative “that,” “be,” sentence-final preposition.

You will be an enjoyable person to work with.

A couple of lexical changes. (Note the shift from “fun” to “enjoyable” too.)

You will be an enjoyable person with whom to work.

A much more uninvolved and formal style.

The enjoyment of working with you will be considerable for me.

Obviously this is not just formal, it’s bloated. I’m not going to advocate using this kind of sentence even in dry technical texts!

Of course you can rewrite it more economically:

I will enjoy working with you.

Direct, not as starchy; short words, not noun-heavy.

I know I’ll enjoy working with you.

More affirmative, of course: “I know.” But also more involved and friendly.

Do these also seem like things that different characters might say in a work of fiction? Indeed so. In fact, they can even be things the same character would say in different contexts. After all, we choose our registers according to situation. You remember the inane advice about Fifty Shades of Grey, right?

Use “bad English”…
…to express character and situation

You might recognize this opening line from a novel:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Some people might feel that this is deplorable and in particular ought not to be read by impressionable youth, and would rather see something more like this:

You do not know about me unless you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that is no matter.

Of course, that would be very contrary to the character of the narrator, who is the eponymous hero of the book, Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain gave a particularly good explanatory note in the front of the book:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

And there is another point: characters use nonstandard grammar, but they don’t all use the same nonstandard grammar. Even those who speak the same dialect may use different turns of phrase. I’m going to get back to this later on when we talk about rude language. (We’ll get to it!)

You can also establish character in places other than fiction. For instance, while “finger-licking good” is catchy, “finger-lickin’ good” is catchier because it expresses a folksy country character. It also catches your attention more. And that’s a big thing!

Use “bad English”…
…to get attention

An article by Evan LePage lists lessons from five of the most effective marketing campaigns of the last decade. The full list of lessons is as follows:

1. Ignore conventional marketing. Instead be memorable.
2. Make your audience a part of the campaign.
3. Distinguish your brand from the competition.
4. Know your audience and cater ads to their interests.
5. Use humor.
6. Take risks.
7. Play to people’s emotions.
8. Don’t be afraid to put your product on the sidelines.
9. Support a meaningful cause and share it with your audience.
10. Try to start a movement with your brand at the center of it.

How many of these can you use bad language to good effect to accomplish? 1. Be memorable. 3. Distinguish your brand – maybe. 5. Use humor. 6. Take risks. 7. Play to people’s emotions. And even 4. Know your audience and cater to their interests – if you’re using nonstandard in-group terms. And what were the five campaigns? Three of them used “bad English,” or at least English that some people would pick at or find a bit naughty. Here are those three:

Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”
Dollar Shave Club’s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great”
K-Mart’s “Ship My Pants”

[the other two were WestJet’s “Real-Time Giving” and Always’s #LikeAGirl]

It’s not that the “bad English” was solely responsible for the success of the campaign. Dollar Shave Club and K-Mart still needed good value propositions to follow up on their barely hidden attention-getting crudities. And the Old Spice commercials relied on incredibly clever scripting and production. But “the man like whom your man could smell”? “The man whose smell your man’s smell could resemble”? Let’s face it: some of these purported rules of good English can do a lot of damage. But they do have one use: You can use them if you want to present someone as sounding starchy or priggish.

Does that sound harsh? Let me show you some suggested replacements for well-known advertising slogans. These are from the website of a young priest whose parents both happened to be very fussy about grammar. The priest in question, who goes by Father Tim, is not advocating a grammar crusade; he’s more musing out loud about how advertising “plays fast and loose with the rules of grammar.” Here is his list:

Winstons taste good, like a cigarette should —> Winstons taste good, as a cigarette should
Leggo my Eggo —> Let go of my Eggo
Got Milk? —> Do you have milk?
Subway: Eat fresh —> Eat freshly
Apple: Think different —> Think differently
McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it —> I am loving it
Staples: We got that. —> We have that.

Do you really think they would have sold nearly as well if they sounded like the counsel of an English teacher? Winstons are cigarettes, and they’re good-tasting cigarettes for working men, not some skinny things smoked by toffs. The Eggo revision would have killed the rhyme and the fun. Got is likewise a fun, folksy word – it can be good English, of course, although there are some people who don’t think so, but to use got as a present-tense replacement for have is nonstandard. But milk, Staples, and also McDonald’s, all bring in the youthful character, the sense of fun and readiness. The Apple slogan works in part because it is different. Just incidentally, though, you can say “Want a new colour for your kitchen? Think green.” It therefore follows that you can say “Think different” with different as an adjectival complement of think. As to Subway: Eat fresh is also an adjectival complement. How, exactly, do you eat freshly? In a fresh manner? You don’t, and that’s not what they want. They want brisk, they want a clear crisp rhythm. Oh, yeah, there’s another reason to use “bad English”: for the sake of the sound.

Use “bad English”…
…to preserve the sound

When Gene Roddenberry wrote “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” he provoked the displeasure of that set of people who object to what they call “split infinitives” (that’s an inaccurate term, but I won’t digress right now). Roddenberry knew well enough that many respected authors had “split infinitives” before and that, moreover, they were common in everyday usage. But he could as easily have moved the boldly… right? Well, listen: “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” It stumbles! Iamb before trochee? As written, it’s a very smooth pentameter: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” It has o’s on all the stressed syllables. So does the non-splitting version, but oh, that rhythm! It makes me want to cough! “To go boldly” [cough cough].

Look! Grammar is not a moral code handed down by an ancient deity on stone tablets! We want to produce the best effect possible for the desired audience. And rhythm and assonance come into that. Got milk? Eat fresh! Leggo my Eggo!

We also have to remember that the desired audience is usually not the “It is I” crowd. Watch your dog-whistles! If you want people to be comfortable with what you’re saying, use language that they’re comfortable with. In fact, use language that is pointedly like the kind their teachers slapped their wrists for. Ideas of “correct English” are very much about class. People who use bad English are “not our sort, dear.” But who’s your audience? Just folks! You don’t get linen table cloths and ten-piece place settings at family restaurants, let alone McDonald’s. If people can win elections because they’re just ordinary folks, you can certainly win over many audiences by being ordinary folks. Got milk? We got that. There’s a popular T-shirt among Calgary Flames fans that reads “More Playoffs, Less Layoffs.” The more the pedants pick at it, the more it reinforces its value for the normal folks who just like hockey.

Use “bad English”…
…to be like normal folks

Remember: pointedly formal grammar reminds people of their English teachers, and for many people in your audience those aren’t fond memories. Reading “Know to whom you are speaking” rather than “Know who you’re speaking to” is like coming into someone’s living room and finding plastic covers on all the furniture.

Things that are too perfect also aren’t as inviting. Really messy stuff is no good either, to be sure, but consider: no one wants to be the first to cut into a perfect cake or a nice new round of cheese. As soon as that first cut is made, it’s open season. When I worked in a bookstore, I found that while you wanted to have your shelves tidy, you wanted your bargain book displays to be a bit messy. A perfect display is like a museum piece. Pull a few books out and leave them lying around loosely and people start picking things up and looking at them. So too with your grammar: within reason, slight imperfections can be more inviting.

Use “bad English”…
…to be inviting

Also, consider restaurant menus. We have all gone into restaurants and looked at the menus and found spelling and grammar errors. Cheap family restaurants have them. Expensive high-end restaurants have them. Everyone has them. Well, almost everyone. If you’re in a restaurant and the menu is completely perfect, no errors of syntax, spelling, or punctuation, this is because they have hired someone – maybe one of us here – to tidy it up. Who can afford to do that? Big corporate chains. If you’re in a restaurant and the menu has an error or two, that’s a little sign, even if it’s unconsciously received, that the restaurant is not a glossy perfect big corporate place. It’s a badge of honesty. Now, I’m not telling you to go putting errors in menus or other things just to make them seem more folksy and honest. And some people will think that if the spelling is sloppy the food must be too (this is a perfect non-sequitur; cooking and spelling are unrelated activities, and in my experience most cooks don’t focus much on correct spelling). But be aware that too-perfect English can seem uninviting or dishonest in some contexts. Also, you want to be believable.

Use “bad English”…
…to be believable

This is also why sometimes you should talk about “free gifts” or use a bit of jargon. You’re going to be more believable if you use in-group vocabulary to emphasize your credibility. I already mentioned this in the “to be like normal folks” bit, but sometimes you want to be like abnormal folks. Let me quote from Robert Bly’s Secrets of a Freelance Writer:

Every business text warns us to avoid jargon and write in plain, simple terms. But jargon, if properly applied, can make copy more effective. The most common exception to the “avoid jargon” rule is in copy aimed at special audiences – farmers, chemists, architects, warehouse managers. Jargon can strengthen your link to these specialists because it shows them that you are “in the know,” that you understand their business and empathize with their problems.

This also comes in with slang. If you’re addressing teenagers, you want to use the kind of slang they use – whichever subgroup of teenagers you’re aiming at. You also have to get it right! Best to have it vetted by actual teenagers of the sort you want to reach. This is also true for adults who belong to certain enthusiasm groups – role-playing games, for instance.

There’s another reason to use jargon:

jargon sometimes can make a product seem more impressive or more valuable. Listerine, we are told, is the only mouthwash that kills “halitosis.” Sounds impressive, until you realize that halitosis is a word concocted by the Listerine people to sell more mouthwash.

It sounds technical, so it must be authoritative!

And redundancy – “free gift” – can also make you more believable. Here’s Bly again:

mail-order copywriters are fond of emphasizing the “free gift” you’ll receive when you join a record club or subscribe to a magazine. Any English teacher can tell you that “free gift” is a redundancy – because a gift by definition is free. But the copywriter’s job is to sell, not to write compositions for an English class. And as a copywriter, you realize that the consumer’s natural reaction is to think that the gift comes with strings attached. So you add the word “free” to emphasize that there are no strings attached – that the gift is indeed just that: a gift.

Sometimes a redundancy presses the point better and makes it more likely to be believed. And they won’t mistake your meaning if you say something twice. Which leads us to the next reason to use “bad English”:

Use “bad English”…
…to be clear

There’s also the case where your audience isn’t really used to the technically “correct” way, and if you use it, they may actually misunderstand it. Consider that you’re not supposed to stick a colon in the middle of a clause. Well and good, but it also follows from that, as I think we all know, that if you’re introducing a list like the following you’re not supposed to use a colon:

If you wish to have a cookie, you may

  • be disappointed
  • be refused
  • be poisoned

The problem being that many readers might think the sentence before the list has ended or dropped off. Readers are very much used to colons before bullet lists. If your readers aren’t used to the official rules, adhering to them may throw them off in some cases. [advance slide to version with colon] Does that really hurt so badly?

Incidentally, using numerals for numbers below 10 isn’t strictly speaking bad English, but it does go against standard style recommendations, as does using numerals at the start of a sentence. But in some kinds of materials you can really fight the reader, or at least make it less usable, if you don’t stick consistently to numerals. One of my bugbears is the disruptive effect of insistence on spelling out numbers at the beginning of sentences in all circumstances:

Ninety-eight or 99 members voted.

This is distracting. But it can be even worse if people are using a document for reference, to look up important information, because numerals jump off the page and spelled-out numbers don’t.

Dosage: Take six to 12 tablets with water per day.

Even if they do see and read the six, the 12 will catch them sooner and stay with them better. So…

Use “bad English”…
…for usability

I’d like to compare the rules of grammar to the rules of the road. We know what the formal rules are. We ought also to know what rules our audience will actually abide by. I’m put in mind of a poem I read once:

Here lies Rupert P. McRae
Who died defending his right of way.
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

There’s no point in adhering to rules that conflict with what your readers expect, unless you’re teaching them the rules. And even then, consider your aims and results carefully.

Speaking of “consider the results,” which is a classic piece of advice from Niccolo Machiavelli, here’s another little tip I want to slip in. This may or may not come in handy to you, but I discovered it in graduate school. If you’re up for your doctorate, and you’re bringing your dissertation to defence, those guys on the committee are going to want to find something to pick on. There’s a zero percent chance they’ll say “Well, this is all great, no issues, you’re good.” They’d look like they weren’t doing their job! So my advice to doctoral students is to skip that very last proofing pass.

Use “bad English”…
…to give people something to pick at

If you’re sure that all your facts are in order and you’ve already read it over a dozen times, skip that last check for typos. There will be a few. If your committee finds them and picks on them, they won’t need to go looking for other things to pick on. Of course, if your dissertation is full of other mistakes, well, that’s your problem. But people will leap with alacrity on obvious mechanical errors… and will also sometimes overlook more important errors as they do so. So, in some circumstances, if you want to be devious…

Use “bad English”…
…as a red herring

I am entirely sure that some politicians do this. It has its risks, of course; if you use bad English, people may conclude that you’re stupid and therefore that whatever you say must be wrong. In fact, that’s a point we often use to sell our services, and it’s generally true: people will give more credit for fact value to fancier English. But people will sometimes give more credit for honesty to plain English. To people who are “just folks.” We may not like this, but we should at least be honest with ourselves about it.

And sometimes they’ll just enjoy the bad English! Breaking rules can be fun!

Use “bad English”…
…for shits and giggles

Sometimes people break rules not because they don’t know the rules, but just because reasons. [advance slide] I can has correct grammars pleez? Such correct! Very grammar! Wow! Play with grammar has always been a thing some people like to do for fun, but some of the current turns of phrase really push against the norms. Are the people who pass these memes around ignorant of the rules? If they were, the fun would be lost. These usages may seem faddish – in fact, they are faddish – but you can use references to them for good effect. Changing “I can has cheezburger?” to “May I have a cheeseburger?” removes the reference and the fun. Do any of you remember Jean Chrétien at the Liberal leadership convention back when Mulroney was prime minister? He said “Brian. Do not adjust your TV set. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Imagine if he had said “Brian. Do not adjust your television set. You haven’t seen anything yet!” It loses the reference, it loses the reverse prestige, it loses the fun.

And speaking of reverse prestige… [indicate shits] Vulgarity can be very effective!

Vulgarity? Hot damn!

Whether Gone with the Wind’s writer and producers intended it or not, Rhett Butler’s closing “I don’t give a damn” was a solid slap in the face that caught attention for its crudeness. It wasn’t the first use of damn in a movie – in fact, it wasn’t even the first use in that movie; “damn Yankees” is heard earlier on – but it was a highlighted moment. It was like a verbal slap in the face… for the audience, too.

Use “bad English”…
…for a slap in the face

Vulgarity is much more accepted today. There are articles on some websites that seem to require an f-word at least once per paragraph, and even mainstream publications use them freely in quoted material and sometimes in personal essays. But too much wears down the effect. I like to think of a rather proper lady I knew in high school who was always well spoken and polite; one time I had bought a new backpack and I was showing it to her proudly, and I said it was really good, and she said, “Yes, damn good.” I’ve never forgotten that.

Use “bad English”…
…for the well-placed vulgarity

There is, indeed, a concept of the well-placed vulgarity: a little hot pepper in just the right spot in the dish, a brief flambé perhaps, rattling the listener, awakening, arousing, connecting directly to the emotions. Vulgarities do that – it’s been demonstrated: they connect more directly to the limbic system. Play it for contrast and you dip quickly into the special reserves, and the effect is like lightning. [polite British accent] “You put all your money in it? Well, then. I believe you’re quite fucked. Would you like some tea?”

I recently read a very detailed fact-checking of a speech by the mayor of Toronto. After a thousand or so words of number wonkage and stern political indictment, we got to this bit, in response to a statement about building recreation facilities under an expressway: “In case John Tory hasn’t noticed, there’s already something underneath the elevated portion of the Gardiner being debated—namely, Lake Shore Boulevard. It’s kind of difficult to build skate parks and tennis courts when there’s already an enormous goddamn road in the way.” A burst of laughter eases the tension and helps win the point.

Of course you can’t use the really strong words just anywhere. You are unlikely to see shit or asshole in an annual report. (However accurate it might be!) But you may well see “Damn the torpedoes” in a callout.

Of course you can use vulgarity to emphasize a disruption, a faux pas, a slip. Like Eliza Doolittle’s “Not bloody likely” in Pygmalion (and My Fair Lady). This can work in quoting and reportage, and of course it can work in fiction.

And if you’re dealing with fiction, here are three good tips from romance writer and freelance editor KJ Charles:

Ask yourself why your character swears.
Know your registers.
Consider context.

I’m going to quote KJ Charles at length here because I really can’t say it better myself:

Ask yourself why your character swears. You can convey a lot about them by what words they use … Is their swearing mostly sexual or religious, specifically abusive or just verbal decoration? Consider where they get their swears from – Army past, foreign travels? What about their social class? How can a Regency upper-class heroine let rip? Do they swear with spluttering fury, or elaborately worked eloquence? Does someone who normally swears like a bastard mind their language around just one person, or vice versa? Can you use an inadvertent ejaculation to betray your character’s shock or anger, and at what level of extremity will that kick in?

Know your registers. A Regency heroine cannot toss damn about in public; bloody obeys grammatical rules and cannot just be dropped randomly into a sentence to convey Britishness; calling someone a sodding tart is not the same as calling them a fucking whore.

Consider context. What impact does each swear have on the people around them? Are they trying to shock, or does it go unnoticed? If swearing is routine and similar among a variety of characters, that can be very boring. … Before you create a register in which, as Anthony Bourdain puts it, fuck is used principally as a comma, ask yourself how you’re going to escalate when people are really cross.

One more thing: vulgarity is an in-group thing. Reverse prestige, as I said. It can be a badge of membership for a social set, or it can be a fun transgression. Here’s a little social media tip: A few months ago, a few others and I started up a sweary blog about swearing, called Strong Language. We tweet about it too. One or more of us (Iva) might have been worried about losing Twitter followers from using vulgarities in our tweets.

Use “bad English”…
…to get friends and readers

What we found was that what your junior high school teachers told you was true: the f-word really is the four-letter friend getter. Four-letter Twitter follower getter, too!

So. Do we have all that? Here’s a review of the reasons to use “bad English.” Some of them overlap; you may object that I’ve made the same point several times from different angles, and if you do, fuck you, you’re right. Repetition can come in handy!

Use “bad English”…

  1. when it’s not bad English
  2. to set the tone
  3. to express character and situation
  4. to get attention
  5. to preserve the sound
  6. to be like normal folks
  7. to be inviting
  8. to be believable
  9. to be clear
  10. for usability
  11. to give people something to pick at
  12. as a red herring
  13. for shits and giggles
  14. for a slap in the face
  15. for the well-placed vulgarity
  16. to get friends and readers

Oh, but one more thing:

Use “bad English”…
…only when you’re sure you’ll get away with it

As Machiavelli said: “Consider the results.”


9 responses to “When to Use Bad English

  1. Reblogged this on MƯA.

  2. This is great. I imagine it was even better in person!

  3. chuck crawford

    Thanks S! Informative and f’in enjoyable

  4. Pingback: The Nitpicker’s Nook: June’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace

  5. Pingback: July Links | Becky Black

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece! It’s listed in my Structural Editing course, and I’m glad it is, because now that I’ve discovered Sesquiotic, I’m looking forward to being a regular visitor here.

    Have a good one!
    – Micky

  7. I think I must be the only person who doesn’t see anything grammatically wrong with “Got milk?” I just see it as short for “Have you got milk?” the way “Have milk?” would be short for “Do you have milk?” Or at least that’s what’s in my mind when I ask my kid, “Got your shoes?”

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