Playing an online lexicogrammar game, I met the word "unbelievable" written with a swear word "f_cking" inserted between the first and second syllables: "un-f_cking-believable".

I understand that it is done for emphasis, but I don't understand the placement of the intensifier f_cking:

Why wasn't it inserted before the stressed syllable as goes the explanation of the mistake I made? Are there any exceptions to the rule? Has it anything to do with the negative prefix un-? If yes, is there's more to it than that that I should bear in mind using an intensifier between syllables?

  • 1
    Wikipedia says: "A simple rule is that the insertion occurs at a syllable boundary, usually just before the primary stressed syllable. [...] This rule is insufficient to describe examples such as un-fuckin'-believable, however, so modifications to this rule are proposed such as morpheme boundaries taking precedence over stress." – user3395 Mar 2 '18 at 14:56
  • @userr2684291This should be put as the answer I may accept. I wish I had known the term expletive infixation) – Victor B. Mar 2 '18 at 15:10
  • I'm not an expert on this, so I can't vouch for the validity of the assertion (what if there are exceptions to this rule as well?); and, what's more, the claim isn't sourced (or maybe it's somewhere within the listed sources but I don't have access to them). The main intent of my comment was to provide you with the term so that you may research the phenomenon further. ( : – user3395 Mar 2 '18 at 15:17
  • @userr2684291"...provide you with the term so that you may research the phenomenon further." So you did, thanks. – Victor B. Mar 2 '18 at 15:23

This is an example of tmesis, and it is widely used in English.


That play last night was un-freakin'-believable.

Note that this is often a colloquial usage, but even the best writers have used it from time to time and it doesn't have to be vulgar.

Example from Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet:

“This is not Romeo, he's some other where.”

An English professor I had as an undergraduage said he liked to think of tmesis placement as in a tent where the fabric of the tent is best supported, the stressed syllables being the poles of said tent. Syllables before and after the tmesis can be unstressed as long as they are preceded or followed by stressed syllables.

We see that the placement is not always before a stressed syllable (as in "abso-freakin'-lutely"). For example, in unbelievable it usually comes before an unstressed syllable, but in fact it would not be surprising to hear it as "unbe-freakin'-lievable" as well. In fantastic it would come between two stressed syllables ("fan-freaking-tastic") and so on. It never comes before an unstressed syllable or series of syllables at the end of a word ("unbeliev-freakin'-able"?), however.

  • I just watched Abso-b████y-lutely: Expletive Infixation from a guy I find interesting on Youtube. I'm not much interested in the terminology, but what I did find noteworthy was Tom Scott's assertion that tmesis / infixation only occurs in English with expletives. From which it naturally follows that very few native speakers would actually be explicitly taught the correct "syntax" for using it. Yet almost all native speakers know (by "instinct"?!) exactly where they can and can't drop that extraneous extra term into any word. – FumbleFingers Apr 19 '20 at 17:52

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