Q: What is the grammar of phrases like “fuck you,” “screw him,” and “damn them”? They seem imperative in force, but who is being damned and who is doing the damning? Could we call these constructions subjectless hortatives?
A: We don’t think those expressions are either imperative (ordering an act) or hortative (encouraging an act). Nobody is really being ordered or encouraged to do anything.
To save ourselves some work, we’ll focus on “fuck you,” which has been exhaustively analyzed by the late James David McCawley, a linguist at the University of Chicago.
In the preface to Studies Out in Left Field, a collection of McCawley’s more unconventional writings, the linguist Arnold Zwicky notes that the book’s author “created the interdisciplinary field of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics virtually on his own.”
(The collection was originally published in 1971 and reprinted in 1992 with Zwicky’s preface.)
Using the pseudonym Quang Phuc Dong, a linguist at the fictitious South Hanoi Institute of Technology, McCawley discusses “fuck you” in a Feb. 5, 1967, paper entitled “English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject.”
In the paper, McCawley compares two sentences: (1) “Close the door” and (2) “Fuck you.” At first glance, he says, “close” in the first sentence and “fuck” in the second appear to be typical transitive verbs followed by their objects.
The first example is indeed imperative, with “you” as the underlying subject, he writes, but the second is definitely not imperative and the identity of the unstated subject is open to question.
If the subject of “Fuck you” were an unstated “you,” McCawley adds, the sentence would normally be reflexive: “Fuck yourself.” Illustrating the point by using a different verb, he notes that instead of “Assert you,” one would say “Assert yourself.”
McCawley argues that there are actually two versions of the verb: “fuck1” and “fuck2.” The linguist Gretchen McCulloch considers those two terms “rather dull,” and prefers “copulating fuck” and “disapproving fuck,” according to a Dec. 9, 2014, post, “A Linguist Explains the Syntax of Fuck.” We’ll use her terminology here.
The copulating “fuck,” according to McCawley, acts like any other classic transitive verb (one that takes an object). You can “fuck” a wife, a boyfriend, or a gigolo, just as you can “close” a door, a book, or a deal.
However, McCawley questions whether the disapproving “fuck” is even a verb. To make his point, he expands sentence No. 1 (“Close the door”) and then shows the difficulty of doing the same with sentence No. 2 (“Fuck you”). We’ll list only a few of his examples here:
“Don’t close the door” vs. “Don’t fuck you.”
“Please close the door” vs. “Please fuck you.”
“Close the door or I’ll take away your teddy-bear” vs. “Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy-bear.”
McCawley also notes that “while ordinary imperatives can be conjoined with each other, they cannot be conjoined with” sentence No. 2:
“Wash the dishes and sweep the floor” vs. “Wash the dishes and fuck you.”
Further, he says, a sentence with two imperative clauses can normally be simplified if the clauses have the same object.
So, “Clean these pants and press these pants” can be shortened to “Clean and press these pants.” But “Describe Communism and fuck communism” can’t be reduced to “Describe and fuck communism.”
McCawley says consideration of these and many other examples we’ve skipped “makes it fairly clear” that the copulating “fuck” and the disapproving “fuck” are “two distinct homophonous lexical items.” (Homophonous terms have the same pronunciation but different meanings.)
He adds that the two terms “have totally different selectional restrictions” (that is, usages), as is shown by these examples:
“Fuck these irregular verbs” vs. “John fucked these irregular verbs.”
“Fuck communism” vs. “John fucked communism.”
Perhaps most important of all, one can use an adverb or adverbial phrase with the copulating “fuck,” but not with the disapproving “fuck,” according to McCawley.
One can “fuck” someone “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon,” but one can’t use “fuck you” with “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon.”
“This restriction suggests that fuck2 not only is distinct from fuck1 but indeed is not even a verb,” McCawley writes.
He cites the linguist Noam Chomsky for support and notes that “no case has been reported of any English morpheme which is unambiguously a verb and which allows no adverbial elements whatever.” (A morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit.)
“Since the only reason which has ever been proposed for analyzing fuck2 as a verb is its appearance in a construction … which superficially resembles an imperative but in fact is not, one must conclude that there is in fact not a scrap of evidence in favor of assigning fuck2 to the class verb.”
McCawley says the expression “fuck you” has “neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance.” He says it’s similar to utterances like “damn,” “to hell with,” “shit on,” “hooray for,” and so on.
These utterances, he says, “simply express a favorable or unfavorable attitude on the part of the speaker towards the thing or things denoted by the noun-phrase.”
If the disapproving “fuck” is not a verb, then what is it? McCawley considers it an “epithet” or a “quasi-verb.”
“I conjecture that fuck2 arose historically from fuck1, although the paucity of citations of fuck makes the philological validation of this conjecture difficult,” he concludes. “However, it is clearly no accident that many quasi-verbs are homophonous with normal morphemes.”