Friday, April 29, 2011

Yikes and Other Swear Words

Swearing is so common these days that we hardly notice anymore. It’s in our homes (the colourful words coming from my neighbour’s place is proof enough of that), it’s in the school yards, it’s in the office, it’s in our movies and tv shows, and it’s in our books.

Does it have to be? No.

Stephen King justifies his use of cussing in his novels by claiming it’s a realistic trait for the type of characters he writes. That’s fair enough. However, I won’t write about those kinds of characters.

Sure, many teenagers use expletives like punctuation. It might be ‘realistic’ to write them that way, but I choose not to. Just because everyone swears, doesn’t make it right. Because I write for young adults, I feel I have a certain responsibility towards them. I don’t like to hear the f-bomb on young tongues so I won’t encourage it by writing it. Even if I wrote for adults, I still wouldn’t use those rough, raw words. The most I’ll use are words such as yikes (well, maybe not but it was the only Y word I could think of), crikies, darn.

I came across a problem when I started writing my High Seas fantasy adventure. My Main Character grows up on a ship full of rough sailors. Of course they swore, but how did I write that into the book without using the words we know today? The advantage of writing fantasy and science fiction is that we can make up words. For example, Battlestar Galactica used frak, the Firefly universe used pigeon Chinese I think.

What are your thoughts on swearing in writing? If you also have issues, what do you do to get around it?

Note: This post is part of the A-Z Challenge. To learn more about the challenge click the image on my sidebar.


  1. Well, since you're read my book, you know - I only use one word, 'damn.' I didn't want to make up alien cuss words and I didn't want my book littered with them. Yes, real fighter pilots cuss. A lot! But I felt I could get my point across without using a lot of language.
    Now in real life... I occasionally say something stronger!

  2. Maybe because I've been swearing since I was twelve, I don't really have a problem with it. Not all my characters swear, but those that do do. i don't see it as a big deal one way or the other.

  3. I have seasons in which I swear plenty in daily life, though I tend to keep it between my husband and myself, perhaps my most intimate friends.

    In my books, I really ask myself if it's necessary- if it's true to the character or if it could be worded another way without diluting impact. Generally, it can be. For whatever reason, swear words are markers on a text. They tend to say a lot about the work as a whole, in my experience (as a reader.)

    I'm sure you're going to get comments across the board on this one, and I like what Alex Cavanaugh has written.

  4. Everything you say is so true. I think if swearing in the media decreases, so will swearing in the real world.
    Thank you for such a great post!

  5. I like making up words too! In my real life I tend to use Piddlepop so one of these days, I'm sure one of characters will be saying that! :)

  6. I'm not a swearer and those words do not come naturally to me. I don't mind reading characters that swear though if it is true to nature. I'd swear for a character if I needed to (except there is one word I absolutely can not say).

  7. I actually love swearing, and I do it a lot. ;) My characters tend to swear as well, but I'm trying to reduce the amount of it. Not because I think it's wrong, but because I want it to have a proper impact when it does happen. :D

  8. It's not the swearing that gets to me. It's the explicit sex scenes between teens. My mouth drops every time I pick up a YA/Crossover and the characters are engaging in sex. Wow! ANd, YIKES!

  9. I personally don't swear and therefore my writing doesn't include it. I echo the comments of Emily Rose. It is interesting to hear the rationale behind the different points of view though.

  10. Oh, um, well...I'm afraid I do have a foul mouth on occasion, and it does come out in my writing. I tried to keep my main character from swearing, but I have a few other characters who let loose with a few choice words when it's called for. Of course, I write adult novels, so the audience is much different than YA.

    I did recently read Leviathan, and appreciated the made up cuss words in that. Barking spiders! Fun.

  11. Unfortunately there is often a lot worse in YA novels than swearing. Sexual encounters, violence, etc. Swearing is like chewing gum in school. It's mild compared to the types of behavior problems found today.


  12. I hate the f-word. Especially when used in front of kids. People don't seem to care nowadays who is listening.

  13. I don't swear myself, and I do limit it in my character's speech, but I do put in a little. I admire that you don't allow any in your writing. I have read some books that had so much of it they were hard for me to read.

  14. This is a really interesting point because up until fairly recently when I started writing my own novel, I was in absolute agreement with you that there is no need whatsoever for writing swearwords in books.

    Then I came to a position in my novel where a swearword was by far the most appropriate word for that character to utter.

    I don't swear and I hate hearing people swear, but yes, it's a realistic, if untasteful, part of life, and perhaps it makes a book more realistic. I don't know.

    What I do know is I'd never write swear words on my blog. Is a novel any different? Maybe.

    Still in a dilemma over this!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  15. I don't think that it is needed. I don't write and don't worry about not writing it.

  16. I hate to say it, but after working as a teacher, I don't even notice it. It's sad to think I've become so desensitized, but when you hear something so often, it doesn't stand out.

    Interestingly enough, as a teenager I attended a private Christian school for middle school, and I NEVER heard swearing. When I transferred to the public high school in 9th grade, I can vividly remember being shocked at the words tossed around like they were helping verbs.

    In my writing, I write it the way I hear it, which often includes swearing. I try to use them sparingly because I don't agree with it, and I do stay away from the more offensive words like the f-bomb. Should I ever land an agent, I hope that is something they would guide me on. I'm all for removing the words, as long as the writing remains realistic.

  17. I don't like swearing and won't include swearwords in my story, although I realize that some of my characters would swear from time to time. My characters speak many different languages, so my MC often doesn't know what they're saying but picks up meaning from their tone. Also, sometimes you can just say, "So-and-so swore loudly." or something, and let people use their imagination. :) I realize this doesn't work in every situation, though.

  18. Well, I served in the army, so I've been thoroughly desensitized to swearing and don't have any qualms about writing it into a story. :P I use it sparingly though and only for some characters (I just can't do fluffy made-up curses for marines, no matter what world my story is set in *g*).

    Kind of random, but here's a link to an awesome list of Old West slang (I found this when I was doing research for Flash Gold!):

    They didn't outright swear as much back then but they sure had some colorful substitutes.

  19. Alex, yes, and I think CassaStar was better for it too.

    Chelsey, yep, many feel this way and that's fine too.

    Suze, when I hear it a lot I tend to pick it up myself. I try not to, but it sometimes slips out. And yes, they are markers. Well said.

    Emily, yes, I think our environment influences us more than we realise.

    Jemi, piddlepop? That's a bit strong, isn't it? ;)

    Charmaine, yes, it has to be true to the characters. So we have to ask ourselves what kind of characters we want to write.

  20. Trisha, hahaha. Yes exactly. That's what it's about. The impact is lost when it's just use like punctuation.

    Shelly, oh yes, that's a whole other topic. That's something else I'd avoid too.

    Pam, oh yes, I love the differing opinions too. Just because I'm not a fan of swearing I'm not going to condemn someone who doesn't mind it.

    L G Smith, the audience makes a big difference plus your key words are "when it's called for". That too makes a huge difference.

  21. Joyce, unfortunately that's so true.

    Niki, people are desensitised because they hear it so often.

    Susan, I agree, when a book is littered with expletives it can become difficult to read.

    Duncan, if it's the most appropriate word to utter, if it's true to the character, if it doesn't become a flag of itself, then it's probably the right word to use. It's an issue that isn't always as simple as black and white.

    Josh, that's good then :)

    Paul, Yeah I went to a private Christian school as well and then got thrown into a group of people who swore like troopers. (I think it was on a camp or something). They all asked me why I didn't swear LOL. I thought that was oddly amusing.

  22. Jeigh, yep, I use that ploy as well. It's telling, but I feel we can get away with it anyway.

    Lindsay, fantastic link. I bookmarked it for future reference. Thanks. I like colourful substitutes.

  23. Isn't your grub a moth? Ours turns into the huhu beetle. gross thing it is too!

  24. a lot of YA writers get around it by just writing that they swore.

    "She swore so vehemently that it made her sister blush."

    You don't have to use the words if you don't want to. I don't write YA so I don't stress about it. I do prefer a sense of realism in my stories but I don't litter them with cussing either.

    Also I think S. King might be a bad example. I don't see him ever writing YA, lol! (*whispers* and he's crazy...)

  25. I think it depends upon the character. I write characters who swear and those who don't. For those who do, it just depends on the situation. If I get to one where it feels tortured to say anything else, I'll use the word I think it's most likely that particular character would say. But I think writers find lots of ways to handle this, and there's no right way!

  26. Reading YA novels where the characters didn't swear like me and my friends never put me off. I'd never not read a book because there wasn't swearing in it, but I'd also never not read a book because there was.

    They are only words and its all about context. In many cases words which aren't swear words can be more damaging and hurtful than words we consider taboo. I would rather be sworn at than called vain or arrogant or ignorant or patronising or uncaring.

    I am not shocked by swear words, and never have been. I use them in certain contexts - with my friends and partner. We all change the way we speak around different people, and I like to think that by knowing this and applying it to my characters, my writing will be stronger.

    What ever stance you take on strong language in your writing, as long as you stick to what you feel is right, I think you'll make the right choice. I do think that inventing swear words in another language is a wee bit hypocritical if you disagree with having swearing in your writing. I'm all for making up words though :D

  27. Great topic! I call it Casual Conversation Cussing, or the three Cs. The occasional expletive when you stub your toe or slam a finger in a door is one thing, but to liberally litter your speech with cuss words is unnecessary at best, shows a lack of intelligence and/or knowledge of the language at worst.

    That said, it sometimes has it's place. I just don't like to read a book (or watch a movie) where every other word out of a character's mouth is a cuss word. What for?

    It's sewage and it stinks.

  28. I love made up swear words!!! I think of Dr Elliot in Scrubs - her word was "frick!".

    I think swearing for the sake of it is very off-putting though. I think its use is more potent when it is used less. Less is more for me works with swear words - esp the f word!

    I was lucky enough to win a Zombie book - but unfortunately I couldn't get past the first chapter. The woman who was supposed to be the heroine was so unpleasant - her swearing every two words just compounded her unpleasantness. If she were likeable, I would have forgiven her language but not this time.

    Take care

  29. I do use cuss words sometimes, but never f bombs.I cringe just thinking about that word.

  30. I am all for swearing if it's something the character would do. No word is off limits but before I use them, I make sure it's really the right choice. I don't want characters swearing just for the sake of swearing.

  31. I use swearing as appropriate to my characters, not to *me*. I personally think it's more important to be authentic and to avoid dialogue that feels contrived (like the frak example), but I know not everyone is comfortable with salty language.

  32. I don't like bad language in books, and I've noticed English speaking writers just love using the F word. It gives me problems, too, in my job since my language doesn't use F so much, although we do have our spicy arsenal of swearing.

  33. I don't mind it as long as it fits the story. I don't want super vulgarity to where you lose the story with all the words, but a few are okay.

  34. I nver use F-bombs and I don't use God's name in swearing either. Other than that I do have mild swearing but nothing abusive.

  35. I curse some in real life, so I don't mind swear words when I'm reading if it fits with the character's behavior. I haven't written anything where swear words would be required, but I don't think I'd have a problem doing that. We'll see...

  36. I agree with everything you said!! I wish everyone would stop swearing! it's so aweful!

  37. Clever with the Y word! :) I agree, and just have my characters swear offscreen. Like: "She swore, and threw the phone across the room." Also, this may be borderline, but I cut a dialogue line off just BEFORE the swear word, where it's obvious what the missing word will be, but another character interrupts.

  38. This is a topic so close to my heart. I have written about this on my blog as well.

    I think use of profanity shows a lack of creativity and a disrespect for readers. Whether realistic or not, if a character has been well-drawn and the dialog is done well enough, nobody's going to notice the absence of profanity as they would the presence of it.

    An example I like to cite is when I saw the movie Platoon in the theater I was perturbed by the excessive profanity and later that was all I could remember about the movie. Later I saw an edited version on television and was impressed with the story and acting and liked it much better. The removal of the profanity did not take away the essence of the movie.

    Love this topic! Can't stand the liberal use of swearing and filthy talk in people's everyday conversation.

    Tossing It Out

  39. I've found that several books--that I otherwise would have really liked--were marred by the fact there was so much swearing. There seems to be a lot of it in YA, too, and I often wish I could pick up a book without cringing a few pages in.

    Most of the time, I either use milder swear words (I'm not that opposed to using the d-word here and there) or I just say "He swore/cursed/snarled/etc."

  40. I dislike swearing in novels (I'll forgive King because he's the master) and I've only used it once in my writing. I recently wrote a 9000 word story for a special anthology coming out soon and given what I put the characters through, I did slip in one F word to make it a little more realistic. Don't get me started on the C word. Horrid.

    Ellie Garratt

  41. I use some swearing, but I write for adults. I think with restraint, it can be effective. Too much is annoying, but that's true of any word over used. :)

  42. I posted about this on Wednesday. My mean characters do swear, but I'm finding that my sweet little folks are much more creative with their expressions. I haven't crossed that bridge yet in my SF. I'll just have to get creative. I always loved the Firefly crews' Chinese. I understand that it was really Chinese, but then that culture is very creative with curses. ; )

  43. Niki, I looked it up. You are correct. Witchetty grubs turn into moths. I never knew that lol!

    Gen, hahahaha I had a giggle over what you said about Mr King. And yes, I use "she swore" a lot too.

    Sarah, definitely depends on th character.

    Kar_took, great point about how we change our speech around different people.

    Bish, haha I love your name for it.

    Old Kitty, interesting your reaction to the zombie book. We have a lot more tolerance when we like a character.

  44. Angela, yep, same.

    M J Fifield, yep, because when a character swears just for the sake of it, it looses it's impact.

    India, I think in the case of frak, it works because the story is set in a distant world. An author shouldn't make up a swear word if their story is contemporary. Neither should they use the f-word if it's a historical. So, it not only depends on the characters, but the setting as well.

    Dezzy, hahaha, translating swear words would be an issue.

    Regina, yep, it's important not to lose the story

    Stephen, yep I won't use those words too (in particular God's name)

  45. Karen, yep, I don't mind reading swearing words (mostly), I just won't write them.

    Sabryna, yep, it's definitely rife.

    Carol, I LOVE your dialogue cut-off. It can't be used too often, but I like it.

    Lee, I love, love, love your point about not needing swear words if the character is written well. Absolutely right. Thank you.

  46. Golden, I almost expect it in adult books (which is kinda sad), but I don't want to see it in YA books.

    Ellie, urgh the c-word is right out. If I could purge it from the English language, I would.

    M Pax, great point about over-use of words.

    Zan, oh, I didn't realise they used real chinese. Ha.


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