Swearing and perceptions of the speaker: A discursive approach

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Swearing has been shown to affect hearers’ perceptions of speakers. Existing studies show mixed effects. Some identify favourable perceptions, including: greater speaker informality, intensity, humour, and credibility. Others show negative outcomes, with swearers perceived as: less competent, intelligent, and trustworthy; and as more aggressive and socially inept than non-swearers. Most existing studies are based on experimental methodologies, typically using constructed data and directly eliciting evaluations. In this paper, using Discursive Psychology principles, I adopt a perspective that is closer to ‘real world’ processes of perception and evaluation. Specifically, I analyse online reader responses to news reports of a celebrity host’s swearing during a televised awards event. Here, the data are unelicited, discursively formulated, and produced in response to a concrete swearing example. In the analysis, I examine the meaning frameworks through which the respondents evaluate swearing; and the types of perceptions that they form about the speaker, including his motivations for swearing and his personal characteristics. I demonstrate that: (a) evaluative categories are negotiated in different ways; and (b) evaluations are inextricably linked to existing representations of the speaker, as well as contextualised judgements and expectations. The study highlights the role of socio-pragmatic concerns in swearing and speaker evaluation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-395
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Early online date13 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I would like to thank three anonymous Journal of Pragmatics reviewers for their very constructive comments and suggestions on the first draft of this paper. I would also like to thank the participants at The 6th Swearing in Scandinavia (SwiSca) Symposium (2019, Stockholm, Sweden) for their lively and insightful discussion of an earlier version of the paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Swearing
  • Perception
  • Non-Experimental Methodology
  • Attribution
  • Speaker Evaluation
  • Discourse Analysis


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