The mental representation and social aspect of expressives

Stanley A. Donahoo, Vicky Tzuyin Lai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Despite increased focus on emotional language, research lacks for the most emotional language: Swearing. We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate whether swear words have content distinct from function words, and if so, whether this content is emotional or social in nature. Stimuli included swear (e.g. shit, damn), negative but non-swear (e.g. kill, sick), open-class neutral (e.g. wood, lend), and closed-class neutral words (e.g. while, whom). Behaviourally, swears were recognised slower than valence- and arousal- matched negative words, meaning that there is more to the expressive dimension than merely a heightened emotional state. In ERPs, both swears and negative words elicited a larger positivity (250–550 ms) than open-class neutral words. Later, swears elicited a larger late positivity (550–750 ms) than negative words. We associate the earlier positivity effect with attention due to negative valence, and the later positivity effect with pragmatics due to social tabooness. Our findings suggest a view in which expressives are not merely function words or emotional words. Rather, expressives are emotionally and socially significant. Swears are more than what is indicated by valence ore arousal alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1423-1438
Number of pages16
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2 2020


  • ERP
  • Swearing
  • emotion
  • language
  • taboo

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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