Good day everyone!

Just a background, I am writing an essay that is formatted with APA styling.

In my paper, I have the word "shit" in it; essentially in this part of the essay, I am discussing that human beings must fulfill their lower needs before dabbling into the philosophy.

I am discussing an enviro NGO's development strategies in Post-2008 Greece. I discuss the Greek economy, the poverty, the humanitarian crisis, etc. I then explain that the environmental NGO's strategies of ad campaigns are not effective because when people are struggling day to day trying to make ends meet, they couldn't care less about the future because they are so distracted by the present, myopic, if you will. I then give a personal story at the dinner table with an elder explaining "You must eat before you shit." I then explain this quote and relate it to myopia.

My question to you guys is this:

Is using expletives appropriate? Even if I am quoting an individual and the quotation itself fits within the purview of my argument.

Edit: I also forgot, my professor read my essay about a week ago and she did not say anything about that expletive. Maybe that was because my essay was still in the editing phases and she thought I would edit it out, or she did not notice it, or lastly she did not care. Sorry for forgetting that detail.

  • @LaurenIpsum As you can tell, I am new to this site. What do you do in predicaments when all answers are helpful? As in, I find all of your answers useful?
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 15:02
  • In general, I'd suggest accepting the answer you think answers the question in the best way. I hope that helps. Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 17:34
  • Thank you :). It was a tough, I picked the one with the highest popularity by because it was the most helpful, especially the first line. In this case, I agree with that the obscenity works, that is why I included it. I find it strengthens my argument. With all that being said, I am hoping my prof responds. If she does, I will let you all know what the answer was. Otherwise, thank you to all of you: what, Jay, NeilFein, and LaurenIpsum.
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 18:59

5 Answers 5


The question is not whether or not you may use expletives in academic writing, but whether or not that quote is essential for your argument.

Academic writing must not be filled with what that older fellow in your life would have called "shit". Academic writing must be clear, concise and to the point. Don't meander.

But this also means that if you need to express a certain thought, or if illustrating your argument with an example will make it easier to understand, you should not talk around this but say it directly. You are among adults and you don't need to censor your language for the sake of propriety.

For example, in an essay on expletives, it would be completely inappropriate not to give examples. Expletives are a valid field of research and many academic publications not only study but quote them extensively.

On the other hand you must be aware how pushing at the limits of propriety can make you feel edgy and cool and reflect whether you don't actually want to use that quote for its shock value.

Certainly vulgar terms should not be part of your own writing, but if they are part of a source you cite, there is nothing you need to worry about. If – and that is what you need to worry about with each source you cite – that source is citable1 and the citation furthers your argument.

If you feel that the meaning of the citation is necessary but that its wording is problematic, you can paraphrase that sentence. You might even want to try that just to see if the citation is actually necessary: if a paraphrased version no longer feels informative, then probably the citation itself is only interesting to you because it contains that one vulgar word, and you should drop it.

It would strongly advise against replacing words in a citation.

1 A word on citability: I do not know what kind of essay you write, and the APA style is applied to all kinds of writing that is not academic in the strictest sense, but nevertheless you must consider the following criteria before you include a citation in your writing (from Wikipedia):

  • Credentials / Authority — Is the author(s) qualified? Why can we beleive this source?
  • Accuracy — How accurate is the information? Can the information be verified in other respected sources?
  • Currency — Is the information’s publishing date current enough for the topic of the research paper?
  • Point of View / Objectivity — Does the author or publisher express an opinion? Does bias affect the information’s accuracy?
  • Relevance — Does the information help answer your research question?
  • Who is the information written for? Is the audience focus appropriate for a research paper?

In academic writing, only peer reviewed sources are citable. You probably don't have to go that far, but taking a minute to understand how the peer review process works and what purpose it serves will give you an insight that will help you more critically consider your own sources. And if you don't have time to do this before you have to hand in this essay, make sure you educate yourself in time for your next assignment.

Good luck, and let us know what your professor answered.

  • 1
    Just an update, I had followed the advice of @Laurenipsum and censored the quote by using "[deficate]." I never heard back from my professor; however she has marked my paper and just delivered my mark back. I got a 90% so I assume the expletive was no problem.
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 22:22
  • 1
    Great! It's "defecate", btw.
    – user5645
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 6:32

Given your quote in context, the obscenity works. It's blunt and to the point, and since you are in fact pointing out that people don't have time or energy for philosophy when they're starving, it's rather apropos.

If you're genuinely worried about the expletive, don't use a halfway substitute. Make it clear what you're censoring by using the correct term, and your readers will understand what you've done:

"You have to eat before you [defecate]."

  • 1
    I need to agree here that, given the context, the expletive works. You're talking about the ineffectiveness of ad campaigns in which (I will assume) the language would have been relatively formal and slang- and expletive-free. The bluntness of the quote nicely dramatizes that. To substitute [expletive deleted] takes the juice and precision out of the example, and arguably makes the same communication error as the ineffective ads, by formalizing (sanitizing) something best expressed directly.
    – Nicole
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 4:25

When I taught ENGL100, I advised students to minimize quotes (still maximize citations for their summaries and paraphrases unless it was to indicate "poetry or precision".

The quote you indicated definitely would count under "poetry" -- any attempt to rephrase it changes its meaning too significantly.

If there is a firm rule in the class against specific words, then I would do the NYTimes thing and write it with as few letters dashed out as possible: "sh_t," "sh--" or "s---" all get the point across, but are increasingly neutered.

Another option would be "[defecate]" -- the square brackets indicate a substitution or addition. If Bruce Wayne is talking about his good friend Clark, he may say "Clark is the best at karaoke, his voice is super!" but you may quote it as "Clark [Kent] is the best at karaoke." If he slipped and said "Superman is the best at karaoke," or if he was unclear in that one sentence ("He's great at karaoke") you can save the secret identity (or clarify who "he" is) by saying "[Clark Kent] is the best at karaoke" --

(I see Lauren Ipsum already covered the square brackets some -- I just wanted to add more context on the land of square brackets)

I would advise against adding "[sic]" (Latin for "thus") after the quote, because that's more commonly used to show "there's an error here, I know it, you know it, but I wanted to preserve the flavor." I might use it if the elder misspoke, but it seems clear that he knew what he meant to say, and the influence the would would have. If you wanted to indicate that a Martian awkwardly askedwhere the bathroom was on this boat, you might say "Where does one ship on this ship?[sic]" However, others may view "shit" as a colloquialism that should get the "sic" treatment. Check your style guide, perhaps?


That depends on the context in which you're writing the essay. If it's an essay that will appear in a magazine for left-wing college students, it might be perfectly appropriate. If it's an essay intended for publication in a prestigious academic journal, probably not. To be given as a speech by the pope? I think we could say pretty surely no.

Whenever questions of the appropriateness of vulgar language come up, the advice I always give is: If there's the least bit of doubt, don't. I read an article by a film critic once in which he said -- quoting from memory, not an exact quote -- "No one has ever said, That could have been a good movie, but they just didn't use the f-word enough." There are people who are offended by vulgar language, and who will quit reading when the vulgarity reaches a level that exceeds their tolerance. No one will quit reading because the level of vulgarity is too low.

Yes, sometimes vulgar language can be used to make a point more strongly. But you could almost always be just as effective by using strong words that are not vulgar. And if you do you are more likely to be taken seriously, because you sound more educated.

Yes, if you are writing dialog in a novel, there are cases where in real life the character would use vulgar language. A novel where the psychopathic drug-dealing murderer gets angry and shouts, "You silly person! I am very unhappy with your actions!" would not be very believable. But that's not the issue here.

  • Right now I have emailed my professor about their opinion; however it must be handed in by midnight, Friday. I am worried on what to do if they do not respond. In your opinion, would it be appropriate to take 'shit' out of the quote and replace it as [crap] then make a footnote saying that there was an expletive? What is your opinion on that? @Jay
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 20:51
  • Frankly I'd just use a different quote: the nature of the quote is that it is crude, and yeah, you could clean it up, but why? Without having seen the rest of your essay I can't say if this quote is so tellingly relevant that you really don't want to give it up, or if you just thought it was clever and it fits. "Crap" is not an obscenity but is also crude and, I don't think, appropriate for an academic paper. If you really like this quote for whatever reason, a solution sometimes used is to replace the vulgar word with "[expletive deleted]", in brackets like that, or some use parentheses....
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 22:33
  • Here's an example where it's apparently done for humorous effect: al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/01/…
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 22:34
  • I am discussing an enviro NGO's development strategies in Post-2008 Greece. I discuss the Greek economy, the poverty, the humanitarian crisis, etc.. I then explain that the environmental NGO's strategies of ad campaigns are not effective because when people are struggling day to day trying to make ends meet, they could care less about the future because they are so distracted by the present, myopic if you will. I then give a personal story at the dinner table with an elder explaining "You must eat before you shit." I then explain this quote and relate it to myopia. What do you think? @Jay
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 0:25
  • I apologize for my indecisiveness; I just think it matches perfectly, but I have never used an expletive in an essay before so I am damn nervous. If you still think it is inappropriate after that description I gave you, could I change the verb to something much less crude that offers the same meaning? @Jaw
    – Spartan
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 0:28

There's a big difference between using an expletive, and quoting an expletive. I would strongly advise against the former in an essay, but the latter is a quite different situation --it's reportage, not usage. If the quote is important to your essay, go ahead and include it.

(If using the quote makes you personally uncomfortable, or if your professor asks you to censor it, LaurenIpsum's advice is the correct path to follow.)

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