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Can You Use Swear Words in TOEFL Writing and Speaking?

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I’ve sometimes see students use a few impolite words (swear words) in their practice TOEFL responses. This is an understandable mistake. After all, the official TOEFL Speaking and Writing Rubrics reward language that’s natural and fluent. And one could argue that mildly bad words are a natural part of English speech. You will often hear these words on prime time television and in every day conversations.

That being said, you should not use swear words  in your TOEFL speeches or essays, and doing so will hurt your TOEFL score. There are a few of reasons for this.

Foul language is not academic language

Academic English has varying degrees of formality. You can see less formal academic language right here on our TOEFL Blog. My colleagues and I write in a tone that’s conversational and informal– certainly not as formal as a textbook article or a research report in an academic journal. But there is no language on this blog that would earn the blog a “PG” (parental guidance suggested) rating if someone made “Magoosh TOEFL Blog: The Movie.” (I want to be played by Jason Lee, by the way!)

This is because the use of “bad” words is not appropriate, or even natural, in educational/academic English. Swearing sounds quite unnatural and distracting in a learning environment. This is because native English speakers– even people that use swear words under other circumstances– are culturally conditioned to use polite language at school.

The TOEFL tests your “language-readiness” for English use in higher education. Important skills include grammar, vocabulary, comprehension, and pronunciation, yes. But another important skill you must demonstrate on the TOEFL is pragmatics. Pragmatics is the skill of understanding the cultural and situational correctness of language use. And swearing on an academic exam– or in a school setting– is not pragmatically correct.

Swearing shows a limited ability to express yourself

In almost any language, people swear when they are frustrated. Swear words are used when someone feels strong emotion and is otherwise at a loss for words. In these situations, crude speech is not creative, carefully thought out speech. In some cultures, including many English-speaking ones, swear words are also used in a happy, playful way among friends. But again, this doesn’t demonstrate the careful thought and fluent range of expression you need for a good score on the TOEFL.

The takeaway

Many ESL students already know not to swear on the TOEFL. However, for some test-takers, the use of swear words is tempting. Bad words are seldom the first words you learn– your English teachers won’t teach them in class, for the cultural and pragmatic reasons I just outlined. So these words can be mistaken for “advanced,” fluent English.

In reality, these rude words are of very limited use. Understanding “bad” words can help you follow TV comedies and tense moments in English drama films. But you could probably live your whole life in an English speaking country without actually needing to say those words yourself. And swear words are less-than-useful on the TOEFL.

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4 Responses to Can You Use Swear Words in TOEFL Writing and Speaking?

  1. Steve December 27, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    Hi,

    I would just like to draw attention to one glaring error. The author stated that:”Swearing shows a limited ability to express yourself” – is this true?
    Do you think Shakespeare could not express himself (he used taboo words and concepts in his writings), do you think that Philip Larkin (the famous poet) could not express himself (read his poem This Be The Verse)?

    Although your comments about using swearing or taboo language in TOEFL writing are correct, stating that swearing shows a limited ability is incorrect. Research suggests that those with a greater command of swearing and profanity also have a greater command of other vocabulary and language use (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-swearing-a-sign-of-a-limited-vocabulary/).

    I suggest that you check out the following blog to help you understand swearing and profanity if you are at all interested in this type of language as it relates to EFL/ESL: http://www.joshesl.com/taboo–slang.html

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 1, 2017 at 5:10 am #

      Hi Steve,

      Interesting counterpoint! I studied linguistics and I love this type of conversation. I will stand behind David on the TOEFL point—a test designed to test academic readiness (like the TOEFL) would absolutely consider using swear words as “limited ability to express oneself.” The academic register in most fields does not allow cursing or overly casual words, and thus not using appropriate academic expression would be detrimental to your score.

      I am definitely letting this comment through because it offers an interesting discussion on the broader idea of curse words and what it represents in general. Thanks for a thoughtful comment! 🙂

  2. Alex July 1, 2017 at 10:22 pm #

    I accidentally said “bloody hell” out of frustration after finishing my response to the first speaking and when the screen said that it was saving my response. It was after the clock stopped running. Will the swear be included in the respose that’ll be marked?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 3, 2017 at 1:59 am #

      Hi Alex,

      If the clock stopped running, it most likely did not get recorded, though we cannot guarantee that. I recommend not cursing in these situations, but since it was not intended to be part of the response, even if it were recorded, I would not expect the rater to judge you too harshly for it.


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