Saturday, November 19, 2011

Swear Words

Do you swear? Hang out with people who swear? Read books where characters swear? Does it bother you? If so, why?

I'm torn on this subject.

On the one hand, I was taught by a wise playwrighting professor at BYU that all words are morally neutral. There are no "bad" words, just bad context. Even the dreaded F-word can be used effectively in a way that teaches a moral message.

But if you use those words,will anyone notice your message?

The main problem with the traditional "curse words," in my opinion, is not that each word is bad, in and of itself, but that society has attached so much subtext to each one, they have become rather unwieldy to use.

Let's examine, shall we?

As I see it, swear words fall into four basic categories: crude, gender-hating, religious, and sexual.

Crude words are those that refer to the more unsavory bodily functions or the regions from which they come, such as (I'll use asterisks to avoid offending your eyes and attracting google searches I might not want) sh**, pi**, and a** It seems to me that we look down on those who use them in non-medical conversations mainly because they're impolite. We don't want to talk about bathroom functions at the office. This doesn't explain why euphemisms of these words are more accepted. Crud, or poo, for example: how, exactly, are those different from sh**? And how is butt or even bottom different from a**? Anyone?

It's not semantics: it's subtext.We think differently about someone who says butt than we think of someone who says a**. There's no reason that I can see, but there it is.

Gender-Hating words seem to be more plentiful in female varieties than male, but, as I see it, they're offensive because they cast one gender in a negative light or serve to basely objectify an individual. The word bastard seems to have fallen out of disfavor lately, but it used to be a horrible insult to suggest someone's parents weren't married. Now, it is used mainly to refer to an insensitive male, though it still seems to suggest that the one so labeled is (or should be) of a lower caste of society. Similarly, b**ch isn't quite so bad as it used to be, though it still suggests that the woman is animalistic and short-tempered. Worse, and still quite offensive to most of society, are those words that refer directly (and negatively) to female anatomy, such as c**t. (It is interesting that dick can actually be a man's first name.) Though the actual definition of this base insult doesn't even make sense ("You are such a vagina." "Huh?"), it is universally understood to be negative. And insulting.

When people use these words, we generally label them as insensitive and boorish. We see them as unrefined and mean. These words carry a bite to them that the more medical terminology does not, mainly because they've been thrown around by angry people for so long that they seem to retain some of that anger, even when used more neutrally.

Religious words are those that are found in the Bible--and are perfectly fine when found there. In church, it is rarely offensive to talk about Jesus Christ, God, and all the people who were damned to hell. The difference comes when these words are used out of context, in casual or offensive ways their originators never intended. I met a man once who seemed gleeful that he would mention Jesus Christ whenever he dropped something, thereby proving that he thought of Him a lot. This was a little offensive to me.

It seems to me that these words became curse words in an act of defiance against authority, and remain offensive because some of us hold them sacred and dislike to have them used in non-religious ways. (For me, this prohibition does not extend to the words damn and hell. They are my most frequent curse-word indulgence.) Those who use these words out of a religious context are often seen as sacrilegious and rebellious. It can send the message that you are not a "good" or holy person.

Sexual words like the omnipresent f*** are essentially like the crude, potty words. They refer to a natural process in a crass way. Not because stringing four letters together makes something good turn bad, but because society has decided that, for whatever reason, good people don't say that word. It becomes impossible to use it, even in the appropriate context, without dragging the societal subtext along with it.

So what's a writer to do? What, specifically, is a YA writer to do? It is ridiculous to suggest that putting these words in our books will expose otherwise innocent minds to awful letter combinations that will scar them for life. It is possible that excessive repetition will encourage young mouths to parrot these words, thus drawing the associated sub-textual judgments upon themselves... but, really, can a single book hope to reach the numbers of repetition that our young people hear at school on a typical day? Will seeing it in black and white really make that much of a difference?

I think, when it comes right down to it, we need to be careful with these words not because they're "bad," and not because people might judge our characters (bad words might actually help our characterizations) but because we need to be aware of our audience.

You've probably all had at least one "conversation" with someone determined to prove how bad-a** s/he is. This type of person will sprinkle expletives throughout his speech until you can hardly discern what he's talking about. It's very frustrating. In this sort of speech, the bleepity-bleep words have as much meaning as, well bleepity-bleeps. If he would cut them out, the meaning would be much clearer. But these sorts of people often use "bad" words without regard to context. They could be talking about going to the store or *shudder* playing with a baby. They use them as filler words the way the rest of us might use "um" or "ah" or "you know." After a lengthy conversation with one of these, I stop noticing the swear words. My brain has to filter them completely out or I'll never figure out what they're saying. So all those words become a complete waste of breath. No more shock value. No more convincing me he's a bad-a**. Just meaningless bleepity-bleeps.

So be hyper-aware of your use of swear words in your writing (and in your speech, by the way). Not because you're going to go to hell for using them or because you're going to send someone else there because they hear/read them. Because when you use one, you drag along the subtext. The small zing of shock value. All of society's judgments on your characters' heads. But when you use lots... you're wasting ink.

What do you think? Do you use swear words in your writing?


  1. I have yet to use swearing in any of my books. I write MG and YA, and certainly some of the situations I write probably would cause anyone to send out a barrage of profanities. Yes, teens hear thousands of swears a day, but I'm not going to provide more if I can help it. This is a great post, and something I think about constantly when I write. :)

  2. It absolutely depends on audience. How likely is your description to be clarified or obscured by the use of profanity or the lack thereof? If you're writing for a young or religious market, which experiences swearing as a disruptive jolt to their imaginative experience, then when you use profanity, you damage your reader's experience. OTOH, if you're writing for a literary or adult crowd and you omit a swear word where the character or situation clearly calls for it, then they perceive your writing as lacking realism, and their experience, too, is disrupted. It just depends, really, on knowing your audience.

  3. Cassie--I tend to write them in for the first draft and cull them later. :)

    Heidi--so true. The "bad boy" character with the choir boy language is as unlikely (unless really, really set up well) as the "good girl" with the potty mouth. If your target audience isn't a fan of profanity, you need to tailor your characters to match their language.

  4. My current story is the first I've written where I feel it is necessary for one of the characters to swear. I've compromised by using 'less' offensive words, but it's weird typing them!

  5. I often use the "he cursed," or "Joe swore," method of avoiding actual curse words in the books. Too often when I read YA or MG books the use of swear words feels unnecessary. That said, there have been a few instances when I felt like they worked quite well.

    Harry Potter, for example, has the Bi--- word in it (the last book, I believe), and I didn't think it felt out of place, nor was I offended by the usage.

  6. Sarah--some characters swear. There are some realists who will let them swear as much as they would in real life. I say don't let real life get in the way of a good story. :)

    Steven--SUCH a good example! When swear words are used sparingly, they can elicit cheers! Who didn't love it when Mrs. Weasly spouted that one off? I think our reaction would have been SOOO different if Mrs. Weasly and/or all the other characters had been swearing incessantly the whole time. We might have missed it entirely, and what a shame would THAT have been?

  7. I don't get offended very easy, but if a book, especially YA, has a ton of the "F" word on every page, I'll stop reading. Not because I'm offended, I just don't like reading it. :P And I try not to write swear words into my books. I'll put like, "He swore under his breath" or "He cursed", but I rarely write the word. I want my books to be clean so everyone can read them. But I don't shy away from reading books if there is swearing in them. Unless what I said above happens. :) I think I just confused myself! lol

  8. Chantele--I like that approach. Brandon Sanderson has said that he'll leave his character's sexual lives a little vague so his readers can imagine it however they like. :) I, too, often say that my characters cursed, and let the reader choose which curse word is most appropriate to the situation. :D

  9. Wonderful article, Robin, and so true. You know that one character in my book that you read actually said the swear words (and they were mild). For everyone else, I did what you do. Just said they swore. I do like that because it allows the reader to fill in the blank. If the reader doesn't swear then the reader may not fill in a blank but if the reader does, the the reader can fill in with a favorite word and feel satisfied. =D

  10. You make some really good points, and I agree overall that we should be careful in our use of swear words. However, I will say that it also depends largely on your character. For example, in my current WIP my female MC is a demon-hunter who's spent a lot of time in a largely male-dominated field kicking tail. And though she doesn't sprinkle her words liberally with expletives, sometimes when a demon is cutting a path through your house and is out for blood, only a good 'f*ck' will do. ;)

    But my book is intended for older audiences anyway. When I wrote my YA novel my characters didn't really swear much at all, except for the occasional 'damn.'

  11. I think swearing can be used but sparingly and only when the word will have a really big impact. I've read plenty of books, YA and not, that use them so frequently they lose all meaning. If you really want these words to have their intended effect, use them ocassionally.

    Except the C word. I don't want to read that in a YA book. I reaaaaaaaally hate it.

  12. Donna: imagination is a wonderful thing

    Jasmine: I can almost guarantee that, if a demon were in MY house, I'd think a good f*** exactly fit the situation. Either that or sobbing quietly in a corner.

    Miss Cole: exactly. We can become immune to shocks sooo quickly.

  13. Yep, I swear in my dialogue. I also swear (occasionally when warranted) in real life. I have a is rated-R. Why should my prose be any different?

  14. I don't like them--especially the f-word and deity swearing. Can't see any reason to use those. I will stop reading a book with too many of them. But what I call "farmer" swear words don't bother me, like hell and damn. I've got a few of those in my MS.

  15. I'm so late to this conversation (even though we've chatted about it before).

    I think this is a very complicated question that depends entirely on what kind of book (and about what kind of characters) you are writing. I do think there is something admirable about trying to avoid certain language in storytelling, but I also think there is a line.

    People swear. People in bad situations get frustrated. People do things in one moment that they would never normally do. Some people view some curse words as more "morally neutral" than others, and if that's true for people, it's true for characters. And some people swear like it's their day job.

    I think there's something intellectually dishonest about creating a world in which real people would swear -- and then pretending that they wouldn't. At that point, work-arounds like "he/she swore" will only work so much.

    In other words, if you're writing MG, contemporary YA, commercial mainstream, women's fiction, cozy mystery, or other similar genres, I think it's very possible to write the entire thing with minimal or no swearing.

    But if it's edgy? Dystopian? Literary? If your kids are fighting zombies? If your MC is a hardened homicide investigator? If it's historical fiction (in a non-Victorian era)? As a reader, I will only put up with so much artificial sanitation. Just like some other commenters have said, "I stop reading if it's just swear after swear after swear," I stop reading if it's a grown man in post-apocalyptic nightmare world who calls someone "swine" when his girlfriend's life is in danger -- when any other man in that situation (or even normal life) would say "son of a bitch" or nothing at all. (And yeah, that's a real book.)

    It's like my favorite case from Con Law. (NERD ALERT!) As a wise professor once said, if you mean "fuck the draft," then all you can say is "fuck the draft." (Cohen v. California, if anyone is wondering.) Some situations have no synonyms.

  16. I try to write what I want to read, and since I don't like to read swear words, I make sure that the stories I write don' have them. This is one of the reasons why I only want to write from the good guy perspective because I don't want to write or understand the other side.

  17. I do, but only when it's appropriate for THAT character. Just like in life, not all folks swear, but swearing is a natural course of conversation for many people. It doesn't mean they're ignorant or even crass. It's just how they communicate. I'm not offended by it. And I even think it makes a character more human. But then I don't write YA, where it's much less tolerated, even though kids swear a lot!

  18. I am probably going to hell, but I think almost all curse words are okay if used in context to achieve the desired result. There are however some words that I just cant stand personally on the printed page--the F word, C word, and P word. The B word is obviously all good:)