I just handled a bunch of flags on older comments, flagging the use of the word "bitch" as "complain" or "is a pain".

Now certain words (mostly ones with 4 letters for some reason), I can get - but in this case, it seems like common, generally mildly inoffensive usage - talking about a situation or software"

With cases like

if i had an installation without lvm but wiht EFI apparently linux mint installs nicely side by side, also installing arch is easy since i just need to update the grub entries to launch it and create a new installation for it. with lvm the issue is re-sizing is a bitch, till now i was unsuccessful in re-sizing a new ubuntu installation without data loss. – codeScriber Aug 21 '15 at 9:57

or one of my own comments

I'm asking this since 'smart' power connectors have more than 2. Dumb ones are barrel connectors. Smart ones will bitch if its not an official power supply. Dumb ones don't care. Its a very relevant point here, especially where the only HP device I have is cheap and has a barrel plug

I agree there are alternatives. Considering there's no actual way to search for comments on site - this person is clearly putting some actual effort into it. Some of the comments are, in fact, worth deleting, due to the entire context of it, but it seems odd to send a mod message to someone for something he said 2 years ago.

These are otherwise useful comments

I'm disinclined to accept these flags (I've left mine alone) but I'm wondering what the community thinks.


6 Answers 6


The language standards for posts and comments should be the same. They're both user-contributed content, visible to everyone on the site, and need to add something useful to the page.

The Be Nice page includes this in a list of bad things:

Inappropriate language or attention. Avoid vulgar terms and anything sexually suggestive. Also, this is not a dating site.

Emphasis mine. There's also this MSE FAQ answer by Jeff Atwood. Though Jeff's word isn't necessarily law, that seems to tilt the scales at least a little toward disallowing expletives.

It's unclear what the line on "vulgar terms"/"expletives" is, but this sense of the word in question is approaching it. Says Wikipedia (hover to see):

Bitch, literally meaning a female dog, is a slang pejorative for a person, commonly a woman, who is belligerent, unreasonable, malicious, a control freak, rudely intrusive or aggressive. When applied to a man, bitch is a derogatory term for a subordinate. Its original use as a vulgarism, documented to the fourteenth century, suggested high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat. The range of meanings has expanded in modern usage. In a feminist context, it can indicate a strong or assertive woman.

The word bitch is one of the most common curse words in the English language. According to Dr. Timothy Jay, there are "over 70 different taboo words" but 80 percent of the time only ten words are used, and the word bitch is included in this set of ten.

And later in the same article:

When used as a verb, to bitch means to complain. Usage in this context is almost always pejorative in intent.

This seems not super nice. Obviously there is a completely legitimate way to use the word - to refer to an actual female dog - so a word filter is not the right way to go about this, but other usages are on shaky ground.

In this specific case, I would be mildly surprised to hear this usage in a semi-formal context, but that might be a regional thing. Perhaps such dilemmas should be treated more along the lines of standard cruft, like salutations in posts or "+1 thank you!" comments: not wrong but not the atmosphere we're going for. We have a sense of humor (which is great!), and we don't demand ultra-strict formality, but we do want to look polished.

As is frequently stated on meta sites around the network, comments are second-class citizens. There shouldn't be anything of critical importance found only in the comments: if it's important, it should generally go into a post. It occasionally may be reasonable to mod-edit useful but borderline comments. An inline editor's note and a ping would be appropriate, but an Official WarningTM (i.e. mod message) months after the fact for one borderline case would be too heavy.

Possibly relevant MSEs:

  • While other options seem more upvoted, I suppose the relevant MSE posts makes this as close to canonical as possible. I'm still not that happy about the other aspects of this, but I guess minor ninja fixes can get around that.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 15:00
  • 5
    Once again, you found official references and posted an answer that makes sense. Your research skills can be a darn inconvenience to others. :-)
    – fixer1234
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 16:24
  • How long before we learn Ben N is, in fact, the conciousness of SE? Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 18:34
  • 2
    I do not agree that wikipedia is relevant when it comes to community opinion on mild profanity. Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 9:44

People can be offended, or claim to be offended, by virtually anything, so some level of common sense needs to be applied. I'd treat this in several categories:

  1. Words that are always considered profanity (typically the 4 letter variety), that all readers immediately know are not suitable for mixed company or young children: never acceptable

  2. Words that are commonly recognized as "hate speech"; highly offensive, derogatory terms referring to groups of people (race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, handicap, physical attributes, etc.): never acceptable

  3. Words that are commonly recognized as terms that some people find mildly offensive: consider the context (how it is used) and the impact. For example, "bitch".

    • If someone calls someone else a bitch, it is being used in an insulting and derogatory manner. That's unacceptable.

    • If it is used as standard English slang in a sentence, that's a different matter, as in: "The connector was a bitch to take off" or "I had a bitch of a time with that error".

      There is no reason to search out these cases and prophylactically do anything with them. If someone complains about a specific example:

      • If it can be easily edited to use a different word, do it. If it is in a useless comment, delete the comment.
      • If it can't easily be changed or deletion would be detrimental, leave it alone. Exception: give special consideration to an offending comment on the complainer's own post. In that case, the complainer can't simply go somewhere else to not see it.

        If appropriate, thank the complainer for bringing it to our attention and explain that it technically doesn't violate site rules so we ask them to just be tolerant. Other than the exception above, it's a really big site and nothing is forcing them to read that particular post.

  4. Words or language that are not typically recognized as offensive but someone complains about it: Judgement call.

    Assess the complainer. Are they just trolling? Ignore the complaint. Does it seem to be a serious complaint but the person is being ridiculously over-sensitive? Maybe explain that it doesn't appear to violate site policy and ask them to clarify what about it they find offensive. If it bothers them enough to respond and they articulate something reasonable, use rules similar to #3 to decide whether to accommodate them.

We want the site to be as friendly as possible, but we also need to weigh the rights of the poster. We should accommodate people's sensibilities when the objections are reasonable and we can easily do it without loss of value to the site or offending someone else. But at some point we need to recognize that some people are special snowflakes who insist on their right to find everything offensive, and accommodating their whims can be offensive to others.

Addendum: It's hard to argue with Ben N's answer. To some degree, we're approaching the question from different angles. For the most part, what we're saying isn't mutually exclusive. The point where the answers diverge is that my answer implies a degree of tolerance for words that are only mildly offensive, while the guidance Ben cites uses as a standard what you would see in a professional, technical publication.

As a simple guideline, that's brilliant. It's a clean way to define a standard that is easily understood and explainable when enforced, and it's consistent with SE's objectives. So let me overlap the two answers.

SU is not a professional, technical publication. That is an atmosphere we would like to emulate, a target. To the extent possible, we want content to be polished, formal, technical discussions, free from "emotional" commentary.

Unfortunately, the majority of contributors aren't practiced at that style. Their objective is either to describe a problem they're experiencing or to help someone else solve one. Writing style is largely an afterthought, if a thought at all.

So cleaning up clearly offensive content is something people should expect. Cleaning up marginally and selectively offensive content is more of a grey area. At some point, it can be stifling on a site that relies on people's unencumbered thought process to get the content onto the site.

We already have contributors who complain when our enthusiastic editors make seemingly trivial grammatical corrections to their posts. Somewhere around half of our audience feels strongly about "free speech" (no limitations on even "unethical" content, let alone word choice--we can talk about piracy as long as we don't use the word "bitch" in the process?).

The "broken window" argument can be made--if we don't allow "bitch" it keeps us farther from discussing whether we should allow piracy. Also,everything we do to polish content contributes to the professional atmosphere we seek.

But too much of a "language police" environment can be detrimental. It's an area that can benefit from a light touch more than heavy-handed enforcement.

  • 1
    I personally like this more than the other answers - but I want to see how voting goes. It did feel like the flagger found something clever and decided to see if it would work. The thing with comment flags is that there's no proper protocol for editing flags after the grace period, or any way to respond. Its accept or dismiss.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 11:57
  • 1
    Light-touch is good. While my own answer, especially the Wrap Up may sound like it's encouraging a more heavy-handed approach, personally I believe that modeling precise language is better and healthier approach from a mod or community member than editing, closing, and censuring. Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 18:29
  • "I believe that modelling precise language is better and healthier approach from a mod or community member than editing, closing, and censuring" I agree, when it is possible. Unfortunately on comment it seems to be a little difficult. The question here is what to do when it is not (maybe any more) possible... maybe tomorrow they will introduce a spoiler like box visible only if you select the option in your account preferences for the gray land of the not so dirty (but not so clean too) words.
    – Hastur
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 9:53

The threshold is personal, but ultimately low.

And one you have to stand by and argue why you found them inoffensive enough to allow to stay on the site.

There is no acceptable level of casual profanity.

What is the difference between the examples and something like "It's one way to cock up the system and makes it a hard decision to swallow in the face of things" or "But if you follow this answer it's the same as a cunt up a tree and makes the joins between pages too noticeable to stitch together before printing."

No one's being directed at with those words, but they're there to be said in a casual manner. But they're offensive and abrasive.

And that's the issue. And that's a level enough.

If you dismiss those things as casual and mildly inoffensive, you're on a slippery slope of allowing or disallowing based on regional use. Some people and places find different levels of cussing acceptable.

We're striking to be amateur-professionals here.

  • Not professional amateurs? ;)
    – Burgi
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 8:51

Using precise language is one of the key ways to raise the level of a question, comment, or answer at least a few points.

Colloquy is a sure way to limit the reach and effectiveness of your question.

Even if the word is a "minor" profanity, it exists in your question either because OP is too emotionally invested in the moment or because OP is too used to imprecise and the use of coarse language to recognize that there are circumstances where it is less effective and actually probably detractive from the rest of the idea they're trying to convey.

If it is a direct quote from a particular odd error message, I see no problem, but in the two specific instances quoted the use of these words reduces the effectiveness of the ideas being conveyed and should not be used:

Another consideration is the presence of non-English speakers and the usefulness of this site to them. Yes, we require questions and answers to be in English, but that does not mean by any stretch that the entire population here is comfortable enough in their English language skills to understand the context and meaning of these terms. Using precise language makes both the questions and answers here more useful for a much broader audience.

What's meant here?

if i had an installation without lvm but wiht EFI apparently linux mint installs nicely side by side, also installing arch is easy since i just need to update the grub entries to launch it and create a new installation for it. with lvm the issue is re-sizing is a bitch, till now i was unsuccessful in re-sizing a new ubuntu installation without data loss

Does it mean that resizing is inconsistent, difficult, or something else? And is the issue with the process or the outcome? All they have conveyed is that they are frustrated at LVM and resizing.

And what about this one?

I'm asking this since 'smart' power connectors have more than 2. Dumb ones are barrel connectors. Smart ones will bitch if its not an official power supply. Dumb ones don't care. Its a very relevant point here, especially where the only HP device I have is cheap and has a barrel plug

Using the word bitch here fails entirely to communicate any meaningful information besides a generic and indeterminate problem. Using precise language in this case is no more difficult and will convey much more (and more useful) information:

Smart ones will fail/burn/smoke/short out/explode if they are not connected to an official power supply.

Wrap up

In a site dedicated to specific question and specific answers, it behooves us to model and encourage the use of precise language and to minimize to the furthest degree possible the use of imprecise language, colloquialism, and profanity.

Edit: Taking into account fixer123's argument that light-touch is best for dealing with these situations: I agree.

Modeling and encouraging should be the primary tools used for most cases of casual profanity, rather than closing or other stricter tools. People often come here frustrated and bang out a question hoping for a quick miracle and soothing solution. These need coaching and care more than close votes in many cases.


What's our threshold for profanity in comments?

I'd say the threshold is the intention to offend and disparage. That's the red line.

That said, we'd preferably not want comments that use profane words, even though they are not intended to disparage and offend. Perhaps we should work on discouraging them. At this time, the only possible course of action is to delete them when other valid grounds present themselves (in which case the bad words play no role in their deletion). But if it were possible, I'd work on a feature request for a word filter system that rejects comments in the first place, forcing the writer to revise it.

  • I'd stick to the "red line" for keep/delete decisions, and not use a filter. It's possible to offend and disparage someone without any "off color" words, making it untrappable by a filter. OTOH many, not necessarily all, "offensive" words are only disparaging in context. "The Rabbi entered on the back of an ass." "I put the bitch in a whelping box."
    – Chindraba
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 1:41
  • 1
    I actually agree with this answer I can't believe it.
    – Ramhound
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 12:09
  • 1
    @GypsySpellweaver Because of my background in Wikipedia, I have a very open mind towards the use of profane words in a non-insulting way. (I also know that people who fail to assume good faith are easily offended when none is intended.) But experience tells me that people CAN avoid the F word, and if they do, the outcome is significantly better writing.
    – user477799
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 14:35

I would find bitch rather more offensive than fuck. No one is hurt by fuck. Some people may dislike it, but dislike is a different matter to hurt. Fuck may be a stronger swear word than bitch, but it has no target. Bitch, by contrast, is a specifically misogynistic insult (while fuck is rarely an insult at all: it is used mainly as an interjection).

So, there are three main differences:

  1. Bitch is an insult, while fuck is an interjection.
  2. Bitch is an insult with a target: it insults women specifically. When applied to other things, it insults them by comparing them to women, which is to say that to be female is to be worthy of insult.
  3. Fuck is classified as a stronger insult.

By most objective measures, bitch is more offensive. Remove it.

  • 1
    It is indeed a gendered insult
    – random Mod
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 14:39
  • 1
    Why do you think those measures are so objective? Especially now, when most people who speak english didn't learn it as their first language? Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 9:48

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