The article of May 21 New York Times written by Stanley Fish under the title, “What Do Spoilers Spoil?” begins with the following lines:

Over 10 percent of the comments on my ‘Hunger Games’ column brought up the question of spoiler alerts. "Haven’t you heard of a spoiler alert?", one exasperated reader asked.

No. I haven’t heard of the word spoiler alert as of yet.

The article ends with the following line:

If ‘The Hunger Games’ is so shallow that it can be spoiled by a plot revelation, the alert doesn’t save much. If ‘The Hunger Games’ is a serious accomplishment, no plot revelation can spoil it.

From the context of the column, I can interpret the meaning of “spoiler alert” two ways:

  1. It means a comment or warning to the effect of “the work isn't worth any further reading” to others, or

  2. Just “revelation of the end result of the story to others”.

What does “spoiler alert” here mean?

Does the question in Stanley Fish’s statement, “Haven’t you heard of a spoiler alert?” mean that ‘spoiler alert’ isn’t the word everybody knows, or just an irony to the author thrown by one of his readers?

  • 3
    The butler did it. Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 2:03
  • 1
    @PeterShor [redacted] Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 2:04
  • 1
    And here I thought it was the one-armed man.
    – Cameron
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 2:04
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    One might call this a GR question. A Google search for "spoiler alert" will answer this question. The first result when I searched for it was wikipedia "Spoiler is any element of any summary or description of any piece of fiction that reveals any plot element which will give away the outcome of a dramatic episode..."
    – TecBrat
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 4:22
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    @Kris: how so?? This is a simple [meaning-in-context] question, or perhaps just a [meaning] question, which has everything to do with language and almost nothing to do with writing.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 21:53

4 Answers 4


In this context, a spoiler alert on Fish's "Hunger Games" column would have been in the form of a warning message to readers that his column contains spoilers.

A spoiler could be loosely defined as something that gives away a key point in a plot. For example, revealing the ending of a story.

Therefore, a spoiler alert is the warning that something contains a spoiler. Not providing spoiler alerts is often frowned upon, because it can drastically ruin something for the readers. You can imagine, with a large audience... that's a lot of people that you're annoying.

To answer your question in the title; I would not consider "The plot of that play stinks" a spoiler, as you're not revealing any information that would spoil the journey for a viewer of the said play.

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    ...because that the plot is bad is vague enough that during the show it doesn't tell you exactly what will happen by the end, but you can recognize the badness afterwards (for those who can predict plots well based on unspecified esthetic judgements, well, then it might be a spoiler).
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 2:09
  • @Mitch That's a good point!
    – Spooky
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 2:12
  • One thing to note is that synopsis ALWAYS means SPOOOOIIILLLERRRSS all over the place. A description should not have spoilers in it, if you have to give an alert, take out the part that raises it. Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 0:00

You've defined "spoiler" quite well in your second guess:

“Revelation of the end result of the story to others”.

A spoiler alert, then, is an idiomatic expression that what follows contains a spoiler. It is often used in the context of amateur film reviews (I've seen the expression often on websites such as amazon.com or Netflix). The expression serves to tell the reader: "If you haven't watched the film yet, stop reading NOW!" in just two short words.

As for spoiler, I have to tell the story about what may have been the worst spoiler of all time! The year was 1980; I was in high school, and talking to a friend about going to the movies that night. The rest of the dialogue went like this (SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't seen Star Wars Episode V yet):

She: What movie are you gonna go see?
Me: The Empire Strikes Back
She: Oh, you'll love it! Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father!

Special note (to Patty, in case she's reading this): Don't worry, I eventually forgave you. It took about three years, but this gradually turned into a funny memory that I remember fondly.

  • Aargh! Markdown has a spoiler-alert feature. You could have used it! (Only half-joking; I do already know of Luke's lineage, but I still haven't seen the film)
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 7:28
  • So spoiler ‘alert’ means the writer’s prediction warningt readers that his writing may include critical spoilers. Right? Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 21:49
  • @Yoichi: Yes, you've got it now. Here's an example from a blog, although that example only has a very "minor" spoiler alert.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 23:01
  • I read the article. Interesting reading. I liked it. Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 23:55
  • @YoichiOishi: Yesterday, I noticed Yahoo! using SPOILER ALERT on its U.S. homepage. Evidently, they were reporting on the results of some Olympic events before those events would be broadcast (with delay) on television. The meaning, of course, was, "Go ahead and click if you want to read about what happened, but don't do so if you plan to watch the Olympics tonight and want to experience the dramatic finish without knowing the end result." The tagline may show up again over the next 10 days or so, if you're interested; I saw it at about 5PM Eastern Time.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 9:43

A spoiler reveals critical facts about a story, not mere opinion as to quality.

"The play stinks" is mere opinion, so it would not be a spoiler warranting a spoiler alert.

"That Darth Vader turns out to be Luke's father is a cheap melodramatic trick" contains critical facts as well as opinion, so would warrant a spoiler alert from a sensitive critic.


To explain what is meant by the question "Haven’t you heard of a spoiler alert?":

When a person is observed committing a faux pas, a response to that observance is to ask the committer whether s/he is unaware of the social rule dictating against the faux pas.

In the OP's example, the faux pas is revealing key points of a movie plot to people who have not yet seen the movie, and the social rule is that of the "spoiler alert", i.e. giving advance warning before such revelation.

In giving such a response, the responder is assuming the rule to be commonly known and that the committer does in fact know the rule. Thus the responder's question is actually a rhetorical one.

The responder's true intention is to chastise the comitter. When asking the committer if s/he is aware of a social rule which s/he has broken while at the same time the responder knows that the committer is aware of the rule, the responder's intended meanings are as follow:

  • The commiter was wrong to break a social rule of which s/he was aware
  • If the committer was not aware of the social rule, then s/he lacks common sense and should work to remedy that

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