The fuck is going on here?

OK, no, really. The fuck is going on here? Look at this:

Fuck is this shit?

Did you understand that? Odds are you did, and if it were spoken you’d get it for sure. The fuck?

So, yeah, we’re dropping the what. And sometimes even the the. But consider that we can say

Why the fuck do we do that?

but we don’t say

*The fuck do we do that?

Likewise (the little typographical assholes * mean “this is wrong, asshole”),

When the fuck is that happening?
*The fuck is that happening?

Where the fuck did he go?
*The fuck did he go?

Just maybe, you can say

The fuck were you talking to?

in place of

Who the fuck were you talking to?

Now, we know that we often delete the first word of a sentence in casual use:

Going to the store. Want something?

Makes a pretty good drink, eh?

Since this first word can generally be assumed, it’s not a huge problem. But consider again:

Gonna be a big-ass party over at John’s to welcome him home.
Really? *The fuck is that happening?

And yet:

Gonna be a big-ass party over at John’s to welcome him home.
Really? The fuck should I bring?

Somehow we can assume what but we can’t assume when. Or where or why or how.

Part of this is surely that what the fuck is more basic than any other wh- the fuck (how is also considered a wh- word). It’s more common and so it’s the automatic assumption. But I think part of it is also that what and who reference simple noun phrases in the nominative or accusative (subject or object – no possessives). The others can be answered with prepositional or adverbial phrases:

When the fuck are you going? At ten o’clock.

Where the fuck are you going? To the club.

Why the fuck are you going? Because I want to.

How the fuck are you going? Quickly. By moving my feet like this.

Going, being intransitive, can’t have a noun complement:

*Who the fuck are you going?

*What the fuck are you going?

(Of course, What the fuck, are you going? is fine, but that’s a different sentence.)

Which proves that all the other ones are adverbial.

As it happens, the fuck is also a noun phrase. Now, I have already said that the the in the fuck is not a normal the. It has an inflectional property that can replace a preposition. I’m not going back on this. But it’s not a preposition. This is an important thing to keep in mind: an inflected noun phrase is, syntactically, different from a prepositional phrase. You can paraphrase “I saw the lady’s underpants” to “I saw the underpants of the lady” but you can’t say “I saw of the lady underpants.” (Notice the extra the in the long version? Possessives occupy the role of specifier so you don’t need a the or a.)

So what I’m heading to is that you can delete what with the fuck because the fuck can stand for what syntactically.

Can you do this with other vexatives?

The fuck is going on here?

The hell is going on here?

*In hell is going on here?

*In the name of fuck is going on here?

(Obviously tone of voice matters.)

You can get away with it if the vexative is a noun phrase, but not if it’s a prepositional phrase. (You also can’t cut where in hell to in hell, but holy shit there’s only so much I can cover here right now; let’s get back to that one.) But you can raise a what the fuck out of a prepositional phrase and delete the what:

What the fuck did you do that for?

The fuck did you do that for?

Next observation: It’s difficult (maybe unnatural) to use wh- in echo questions:

You asked him to buy what the fuck?

But it’s impossible to use just the fuck or fuck in echo questions:

*You asked him to buy the fuck?

In those cases, the fuck by itself would be taken as a simple noun phrase, and it would lack the interrogative quality of the what. It can take that quality on at the beginning of the sentence because that position is more readily interpretable as an interrogative. Also, in echo questions the what occupies an important intonational position and can’t be deleted, whereas at the start of a sentence the the fuck in what the fuck takes on the dominant intonational position. (There will be some who will say that that what deletion is entirely a matter of intonation, but if that’s so, why can’t those other wh- words with similar intonational contours be deleted?)

Next observation: You can easily use wh- the fuck in a relative position:

Somebody needs to tell them what the fuck to do.

I didn’t have the nerve to ask her who the fuck she was planning to talk to.

Could someone please explain to me why the fuck we’re doing this?

But can you delete the wh-?

?Somebody needs to tell them the fuck to do.

?I didn’t have the nerve to ask her the fuck she was planning to talk to.

*Could someone please explain to me the fuck we’re doing this?

You might be able to do it with what and perhaps who. But definitely not with any of the non-noun ones.

So. My mind has been at this one for the last few days like a dog at a feather pillow, but some of my elements of minimalist syntax are rusty and there’s more detail I want to refresh myself on – but, honestly, if I started talking minimalist syntax and drawing those hairy trees it generates, there would be a loud chorus of “What. the. actual. fuck” from most of the readers here.

Let me just state one important principle: In a language like English, all movement is towards the beginning of the sentence. When the fuck merges with (deletes) what, it’s moving to occupy the what spot and taking over its operator role while maintaining its own noun phrase status. Which is why it can’t do it with when, where, why, how: it can’t fill those roles.

Incidentally, Italian does something like this too in ordinary usage. The normal way of asking “What” in Italian now is Che cosa, literally “What thing?” So you can say Che cosa hai fatto? to mean “What have you done?” But you can also drop the che and just say Cosa hai fatto? You can use cosa in place of che cosa generally in questions, informally. Now, that’s Italian, and it does a variety of things differently from English. We can’t assume that exactly the same thing is going on. But it’s a parallel, and perhaps proof of concept.

One more thing. Sometimes you can see or hear a version without the the:

Fuck is that asshole doing?

Once we’ve deleted the what, we don’t need the inflected the to connect it anymore. We can have just the noun head: Fuck.

21 thoughts on “The fuck is going on here?

  1. GH January 23, 2015 / 9:18 am

    Nice. But personally I find “The fuck did he go?” (with McNulty-like intonation) grammatical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sesquiotic January 23, 2015 / 1:56 pm

      Hmm! I had difficulty finding a good way to collect instances of sentence-initial “The fuck” and “Fuck” from the most likely sources, so more data is very much appreciated. This could have implications for either the role of “The fuck” or the role of “Where”… Do you find any of the other wh- deletions acceptable?


    • Sunshine April 15, 2015 / 6:25 am

      I was thinking the same thing! But after rolling it around for a bit, I think the information provided by context matters tremendously. “The fuck is my wallet?” sounds reasonable on its own, and even more reasonable if you know that the speaker tends to lose things. However, “*The fuck is the party?” makes no goddamned sense. Are you asking where? When? Even who? It’s incredibly hard to think of a situation where that would work. The only thing I can think of is calling someone when you’re already driving to the party, but you’re not sure where it is. Even then, it sounds more like frustrated babbling than a legitimate sentence. Contextual information is key in this case.


    • John Evans October 13, 2022 / 11:27 am

      Came here to say the same thing. And if anyone’s looking for more data, I’d say a full transcript of The Wire* would provide an abundance of examples.

      *The fuck is going to read through all of that, I don’t know.


  2. John Kelly January 23, 2015 / 1:16 pm

    This was a great post, and linguistics lesson, James. I also appreciate your reference to asterisks as “assholes.” Vonnegut famously did that, too, right?


    • sesquiotic January 23, 2015 / 1:57 pm

      🙂 I was wondering if anyone would know that one. Yes, I stole the idea from Breakfast of Champions.

      Liked by 2 people

      • John Kelly January 23, 2015 / 2:00 pm

        Takes one to know one, shall we say?


  3. gengojeff January 23, 2015 / 2:43 pm

    I find your two questionable ones totally ungrammatical:

    *Somebody needs to tell them the fuck to do.
    *I didn’t have the nerve to ask her the fuck she was planning to talk to.

    I think my brain will accept “wh-” deletion only in sentence initial position:

    The fuck is he doing?
    *Can anyone tell me the fuck he’s doing?

    It might be that wh- deletion is only allowed in the NP of the top level TP, but since ‘wh-‘ words get fronted, it’s hard for me to confirm whether it’s a function of the underlying syntax or simple sentence positioning. But I decided that my career in syntax ended when I finished reading Carnie’s Syntax, so (what) the fuck do I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sesquiotic January 23, 2015 / 3:47 pm

      I was trying to decide whether the the fuck could be thought to be raised with the wh-. I decided I wasn’t sure. I had toyed with the idea of its occupying a sentence adverb slot, but quickly shot that down – Honestly, what the fuck was I thinking? Obviously c-commanded by the wh- operator. But I need to review some syntactic theory that I haven’t been using recently. Key issues aren’t covered by what’s on my shelf, either. Must buy moar books!


  4. cjrecordvt January 23, 2015 / 2:43 pm

    I hate to burst the stars, but another bit of anecdata: I have used, heard, and seen

    The fuck did he go?
    The fuck were you talking to?

    used clearly and without confusion (where and who, respectively – signalled by the verb, I assume). I’ve also heard

    The fuck do we do that?
    The fuck is that happening?

    with some confusion – why/how in the first, why/how/when in the second.


    • sesquiotic January 23, 2015 / 3:38 pm

      Well, then, that makes for a different analysis! I was going on the basis of what would be coherent and acceptable to me, but that’s never really the best practice. I’m happy to be getting more data. Expect a revision once I have a good base of observed usages. I was trying to collect some but it was such a pain in the ass I decided to roll ahead with recollection and impression first. A plus is that it tends to draw data. 🙂


      • cjrecordvt January 23, 2015 / 5:53 pm

        That’s the best part of Linguistics–figuring out where we’re possibly wrong because of our personal understanding. But I suspect the potential of wh- deletion is tied to the valency of the pre-transform VP or PP: “go X” and “talking to X” both have very restricted choices, while “do” and “is” have rather more options.


  5. Jason Preater January 28, 2015 / 7:15 am

    Great post. Amusing and educational. I’m not a linguist but- wtf- I can follow every word. I am currently musing over the Spanish expression Me cago en dios, which literally means I shit on god, but this is not so much linguistic as cultural: how is it that shitting on god (or in the milk) can be so easy to say in one language and so, well, inappropriate in another. And how you can take the thing you are shitting on and end up with a whole different ball game. It is la leche: or the milk. WTF.


  6. Rachel January 28, 2015 / 12:08 pm

    You think your readers are going to blanch at a syntax tree? What the actual? (Have you examined this kind of fuck-deletion yet?)


  7. Ron Stack January 29, 2015 / 2:45 am

    How do you handle the case where the deleted wh- is supplied semantically elsewhere? (“They got married? The fuck did that happen?” “He got an A? The fuck he do that?”).

    Great blog! Language Log’s evil twin was long overdue!


  8. Elizabeth Lilly February 11, 2015 / 2:45 am

    Just discovered your blog–it fucking rocks!

    An example of “the fuck” (really da fuck, imho) used for why:

    Da fuck you call me at 3 am?


  9. neminem February 14, 2015 / 3:01 pm

    Thinking about it, while I agree that “The fuck do we do that?” sounds ungrammatical, I posit that the very similar “the fuck did you do that for?” does *not*.


  10. Shannon February 26, 2015 / 2:05 am

    Cool post!

    Now this is just me and my peers, but I know I’ve heard people drop the “Where-” and “Who-” in these sorts of expressions. I can’t recall any specific instances of dropping the “When-“, but your example didn’t sound that wrong to me.


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