I was just wondering if I should include an edited expletive in an essay I have to write for a Software Development class. I'm currently writing a paper about debugging techniques and I wanted to talk about reading documentation to ensure the correct use of libraries and algorithms. This is commonly referred to as RTFM or "Read The Fucking Manual". So I was wondering if I should change it to "Read The [expletive] Manual", replace a couple letters with *'s, or scrap the idea entirely.

I just thought the teacher may enjoy a break from reading the same essay over 50 times that will include the exact same content (there are only so many debugging techniques).

I'm also thinking about including the "It's not a bug, it's a feature" with the following image while expanding on the line of thinking.

The reason why I think I can get away with this is because the teacher frequently cracks jokes during his lecture, and he has actually used the bug vs feature joke in class before. enter image description here

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    I edited your title to specify that this writing is for a class, because conventions for coursework are often different from writing for publication.
    – ff524
    Feb 6, 2015 at 8:40
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    You are in America, aren’t you?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 6, 2015 at 9:07
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    Please clarify: Are you planning to include the expletive for what it says, as a message to the reader ("While the architecture of the software will be described in this chapter, it is not meant as a user guide. If you just want to use the software, RTFM."), or as an on-topic citation/pop-culture reference ("Unwillingness of users to indulge in lengthy documentation materials to find a solution to their particular problem, instead of directly asking for help, can be observed in many contexts. This goes so far that a widely-known acronym, 'RTFM', has been coined in response.")? Feb 6, 2015 at 9:21
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    Read the friendly manual.
    – JeffE
    Feb 7, 2015 at 3:39
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    Or fine. Or furnished. Feb 7, 2015 at 4:15

7 Answers 7


I was wondering if I should change it to "Read The [expletive] Manual", replace a couple letters with *'s, or scrap the idea entirely.

I'll opt for "scrap the idea entirely". You are misinterpreting what the purpose of class essays is - this isn't supposed to be a witty, innovative text that entertains the lecturer, and the lecturer will likely not mind so much reading about the same debugging techniques over and over again. The purpose of this text is to explain what you know about said debugging techniques. A secondary purpose is that you show that you know how to write an academic text. Some semi-witty text is likely to fail the second test, and spending a lot of paper space on an unrelated joke is likely to at least be a bad indicator for the first test (that is, if I get a paper where the author spends a lot of time writing about semi-related nonsense, my initial impression is that the author didn't really know what to write about the actual topic).

The reason why I think I can get away with this is because the teacher frequently cracks jokes during his lecture

There's a place and a time to be humorous. Presentations and lectures can be a good time (because, if well done, jokes break the ice and keep the audience's attention), academic papers are notoriously a very bad time to crack jokes. That the lecturer cracks jokes in class does not necessarily mean that he wants to see them in your manuscript. I tend to crack the occasional bad joke in class, and as you may be able to tell, I am no fan of humour in student assignments.

and he has actually used the bug vs feature joke in class before.

So he won't even laugh because he already knows the joke :) at least come up with something new.

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    For the record, I as a software engineering researcher found the image quite amusing, but I still would want to see it in my Twitter timeline much rather than in a class text.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 6, 2015 at 8:55
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    Presentations can also be a bad time for jokes that could even be conceivably offensive to someone. (I once got an email from someone I don't know, who had just attended my coauthor's talk at a conference. He wrote to all the authors of the paper to comment on the "needless sexual innuendo" in a joke the presenter used to highlight a certain idea. It definitely wasn't the kind of feedback on our work I was hoping for.)
    – ff524
    Feb 6, 2015 at 9:01
  • @ff524 I am well-known to shoot myself in the foot in lectures, that is true. In one lecture I later found out that one of the authors of a software I was constantly using as a negative example was in class. However, he was cool about it and we had a good laugh.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 6, 2015 at 9:03
  • The only student assignment I would consider putting a joke in would be a comment in source code (or, as this answer mentioned, maybe a bit in a slide for a presentation.) Even in those situations, it should be clean and short (e.g. no expletives.) I've heard of instructors counting off significant amounts for students putting profanity in variable names or comments.
    – reirab
    Feb 6, 2015 at 22:25
  • No expletives in writing. Ever. What distinguishes good from bad writing is the ability to be precise with words like a pincer. Expletives are like verbal Molotov cocktails. Easily prepared and cheaply effective, but actually a replacement when more sophisticated options are lacking. Humour is a different thing, but, again - it has to be very accurate. If in doubt, leave it out. A good place for humour may be mottos at the beginning of chapters. Choose them well, though. Jan 21, 2016 at 18:51

RTFM: Read The Fine Manual.

The documentation in question is, naturally, an exquisite treatise about the product in question. It is well-written, indexed, cross-referenced and contains ample anecdotes and code samples. It has it's own series (complete with a new animal sketch) in the O'Reilly collection and will soon replace The Camel as the canonical example of how documentation should be written.

That's the marketing version.

The actual documentation is 3 pages of semi-illiterate spew that a 9th-grader would mark as bad grammar. It's barely useful in launching the software and contains enough errors to be dangerous.

The user will replace "Fine" with the other word all by themselves.

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    How does that answer the question?
    – xLeitix
    Feb 6, 2015 at 10:06
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    @xLeitix " So I was wondering if I should change it to "Read The [expletive] Manual", replace a couple letters with *'s, or scrap the idea entirely. " - it provides an alternate title? Feb 6, 2015 at 16:27
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    @xLeitix : Q: "How should I edit this phrase?" A: "Like this". I refer you to the first sentence, words 2 thru 5.
    – peter
    Feb 6, 2015 at 23:44
  • I like the general idea, but I wouldn't use Fine to replace the expletive. In fact, there's no need to stick with an f-word here – something like Read the Dang Manual! conveys the same sense of frustration without the questionable language.
    – J.R.
    Feb 7, 2015 at 11:45

Generally speaking, expletives are frowned upon in academic writing. You can give any rationale you feel justified, but here's my personal take:

Expletives serve a purpose in language. They serve as an emotional utterance that provides additional emphasis to the reader, at the expense of clear reasoning. Creating a visual analogy for this, they act as a bright strobe-light emphasizing a detail. On a dance floor, with illicit drugs all around, use of a strobe-light is acceptable for emphasizing the beat of the music. In the viewing room of the Mona Lisa, it is decidedly less acceptable.

If you were a curator for the Louvre, and recently came into possession of a piece of art which uses a strobe for artistic effect, that would be fine. However, you would choose not to put said piece of art in the same room as the Mona Lisa, so as not to disrupt the more academic viewers.

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    "same room as the Mona Lisa, so as not to disrupt the more academic viewers" (emphasis by myself) - you have obviously not been to Louvre :) Feb 6, 2015 at 20:15
  • @O.R.Mapper: Touché
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 6, 2015 at 20:24
  • I don't agree that expletives are frowned upon in academic writing. Instead, they are not introduced by the academics themselves. One does not write "and then I put the fucking beaker over the Bunsen for the fourteenth fucking time", however it's also not academic to censor swearing in the source material, and so if a paper is talking about RTFM I'd expect it to use "read the fucking manual" and not any bowdlerised or censored version. Aug 25, 2021 at 9:54

If you make a point of making it clear that you're quoting from another source then it shouldn't matter too much. For example, 'As so and so says, this is called "Read The Fucking Manual"', or 'On x webpage/ x page of y book this is referred to as "Read The Fucking Manual"'.

Saying that, I would use discretion when adding something like this into an essay, if you're 100% sure the professor will find it humourous then go for it, if not then avoid using the explicative and go for a ...softer or censored version of it.

Like I said, it all depends on the prof, a friend of mine once gave an answer on a Java exam about a magical elf being responsible for one of the programming concepts and he still got full marks for the question because the prof had a sense of humour. Had it been another prof they'd just give him 0 for that question, all depends on the prof, plain and simple.


Whenever I've needed to explain RTFM, I just say it stands for Read The Manual. Inevitably the other person says "but what does the F -- ? Oh." All by themselves. However, I would only use this in an academic context in someone else's mouth. Something like

When you don't get the results you're expecting, and the only technical support you can find is someone telling you to "RTFM" (Read The Manual), don't give up! Some simple debugging techniques can give you the ability to watch your program execute and understand why it's misbehaving.

Be careful though. A feature is not a bug in a suit even if you think it is, and debugging is rarely a substitute for reading documentation. Your efforts to liven up the essay may reveal errors of thought that end up costing you more than they gain.


When I was grading lots of lab reports I appreciated jokes, provided that:

  • They were funny
  • They didn't detract from the point of the paper (one sentence saying explaining RTFL is probably fine, figures with no relation to the assignment may be too much)
  • The student doesn't think they could get away with lousy work by being chummy

The last point is probably the most important; if your instructor sees lousy work and jokes together he may think you're unable to take his class seriously. That makes his job more stressful.

Personally I think expletives are cheap. If I were your instructor I'd probably chuckle, and then leave a comment "Read the Fucking[friendly] Manual".


Totally disregarding the context of your work, like the previous answers have touched on. I am studying at a university, and thus am writing at a university level.

If I were in a position where I had to choose whether or not to use an expletive, so long as there was a valid reason for it being there, I would totally go for it. This is not high school, where a repremand would be in order. In academia, one should not dilute one's thoughts, so long as the thoughts are on the right track. I would go for it, but like the previous answers have touched on, you may be totally out of context in using that kind of language. It may not be needed.. If it's not needed, definately don't do it, but if it is needed, don't second guess it.

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