On Reducing TMD Syntactic Ambiguity


One of our teachers at AllSet Learning introduced a hilarious Chinese article to me on the grammatical usage of the phrase 他妈的 (often abbreviated as “TMD”). The most appropriate translation of 他妈的 in English is usually “fucking” (in the emphatic sense), so if that offends you, stop reading now.

The origin of this article is unclear to me, but it dates back to at least 2009 (here’s a copy). Anyway, I found the article both funny and instructional, so I’ve translated it below. This is the kind of thing that has tons of translation options, though, so suggestions for more skillful translations are always welcome!

The grammatically correct use of “TMD” (“fucking”)

In this article, I will offer some simple explanations and examples regarding this expression.

  1. Consider the following sentence:


    This year’s test questions were the same as the exercise questions.

    There’s ambiguity here: are we saying that that the questions on the test were really the same as the exercise questions, or are we just metaphorically stating that the test questions simply resembled the exercise questions? At this time, “fucking” becomes useful. We can insert “fucking” into this sentence to make the distinction:


    “This year’s test questions were the fucking same as the exercise questions.” (indicating identical to the exercise questions)


    “This year’s test questions were the same as the fucking exercise questions.” (suggesting that the test questions were too simple)

  2. There are many similar cases, for example:

    [Translator’s note: I don’t think there’s any way to preserve this ambiguity in English translation, so I’m forced to translate it twice in English.]


    “This explanation is unclear.” / “This cannot be explained clearly.”

    There are two meanings here: that the explanation itself is not lucid, or that the matter is difficult to explain. However, once we add “fucking,” the ambiguity immediately disappears:


    “This explanation is fucking unclear.” (the explanation itself is not helpful)


    “This cannot be fucking explained clearly.” (the issue is difficult to explain)

  3. Another example:


    “Didn’t finish reading it once.” / “Didn’t finish reading it all at once.”

    This sentence has two meanings: did not finish reading it a single time, or didn’t finish reading it all at once. If we insert “fucking” in different positions, the ambiguity can also be removed:


    “Didn’t fucking finish reading it all at once” (didn’t finish reading it all in one go)


    “Didn’t finish reading it fucking once”

    (simply has not ever finished reading it)

Therefore, our fucking conclusion is that we should advocate the fucking inclusion of “fucking,” which can fucking assist in the clarity of fucking sentence structure, reduce fucking syntactic ambiguity, and make possible obstacle-free fucking communication.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I would have to fucking agree! ^^ Internet Chinese is TMD amazing.

    • But the irony is that, when using English, your two interjections do not change any aspect of the meaning of this sentence (though, granted, they make it a bit punchier!:))

  2. Fascinating stuff. Two quick things, though. 1) I was a bit confused by the English translations of the last two sentences. Judging purely from word order, they appear to be the wrong way around. Shouldn’t “没有他妈的一次看完” be “Didn’t finish reading it fucking once”, and ‘没有一次他妈的看完’ be “Didn’t fucking finish reading it once’? 2) Is it the case that, when used in an online (and written) context in which the rhythms of verbal communication are often aped, the famously context-dependent Chinese language NEEDS maledictions to oil the wheels of communication. In contrast, those same swear words, in English, are generally taken (from a generous POV) to be somewhat peripheral exclamations, or (from a less generous POV) to reveal a poverty of vocabulary and/or lack of linguistic imagination. Though a frequent swearer myself, I’m of the view that expletives, though powerful tools, are not strictly ‘necessary’ in English. This post suggests this is not true of ‘online’ Chinese? Lots of chew on. Thanks for the post.

  3. Quek Sai Kee Says: June 15, 2011 at 7:51 am

    I am not sure of the origin of TMD (literally means “his mother’s …”) too. However, I believe that it is popularised after the Chinese writer Lu Xun (鲁迅)included it in his writings and made the phrase acceptable as a decent swear word. It is suggestive enough and yet not too graphic or explicit.

  4. What is causing the pinyin to display when I run my mouse over the Chinese characters? Is it a browser plugin? I’d love to have it for all Chinese sites I visit.

  5. Luan Jida Says: June 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Nice post, thanks for sharing this refreshing linguistic analysis ^^! I’m thinking about introducing it in language class next week, that’s why I did a quick search on google HK. Maybe the idea originated from matrix67’s blog:

  6. […] The term is a versatile expletive roughly equivalent to “damn” or “fuck” in English. Sinosplice provides a detailed explanation of the term’s proper […]

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