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Profanity in Books and Writing

October 3, 2013
Обкладинка книги "Над прірвою у житі"

When I was in junior high, I read this book and giggled at the profanity, but at least I didn’t highlight or circle any of the bad words. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WARNING!  Despite the topic of profanity in writing, there is NO profanity in the following article.  No caution is necessary while reading (but don’t click on the links if you’re offended easily). 

***** 

I hardly ever use profanity in my personal life.  The two exceptions are during football games and while I’m stuck in traffic.  And when I write for Dysfunctional Literacy, I rarely use inappropriate language.  Even when I wrote about the etymology of certain vulgar words, I used signs like @, %, *, and # most of the time to take the place of letters.  I really didn’t want to spell them out.

I notice profanity in writing.  I think some authors put way too much foul language in their books, especially in their dialogue.  It won’t stop me from reading a book, but it might keep me from reading another book by that author (if the profanity is pointless).  It’s not because the profanity is offensive; it’s that profanity is sometimes a sign of lazy writing.

I notice profanity on blogs too.  Most of it is unnecessary (in my opinion), but I don’t stop reading because of it, and it occasionally (if used properly) adds more emotion to writing.  It seems that the less profanity is used, the more effective profanity becomes when it’s used. 

Even when writing fiction, I hardly ever use foul language.  An English teacher in high school said that when our characters used vulgar language, it was best to just say that they swore and not state what words they used.  That’s what I did for all of my stories in high school (it kept me out of trouble), and it had some carry over in college too.  Now when I write fiction (none of it published, most of it not very good), I try to keep the profanity to a minimum. 

But then I started writing “The Literary Girlfriend.”   It’s a serial romantic comedy on my blog, and Danielle, the female love interest, swears a lot.  It’s part of her personality, and I write a lot of dialogue in this story. 

The problem is that I that I don’t know how offensive the profanity is to potential readers.  I know some teenagers (and other impressionable souls) occasionally read Dysfunctional Literacy.  I know teenagers curse more than Danielle does, but I still feel a bit hesitant to use so much foul language.  Even sensitive adults (like me) might be offended if they don’t expect the profanity.  My policy is that I don’t mind offending people (well, I do, just a little), but I don’t go out of my way to do it either. 

Just a few days ago, the first sentence in The Literary Girlfriend: Car Trouble  had two bad words (the f-bomb and the s-word).  I liked the opening sentence, but I could see how it might turn off readers who had never read “The Literary Girlfriend” or had never seen Dysfunctional Literacy before. 

So here’s the question (or questions): Should I put up a language warning at the beginning of “The Literary Girlfriend” posts when Danielle curses a lot?  Do you get offended by overuse (or any use) of profanity in writing?  How much profanity do you use in your own writing?  And can you get through a traffic jam without using profanity?

18 Comments
  1. I myself try not to use too much profanity but if I do something like drop a hammer on my foot…all bet’s are off. It is not the same when I am writing, because my writing is not about me. My characters each have their own individual personalities and voices so it can’t be all about the types of words I use in my daily life. I don’t add profanity so I can be able to say “oh look how many swear words I use look at how edgy I am”. My use of profanity in my writing is completely informed by the personalities of the characters. Great post!

  2. I am one to curse a lot out of frustration. I don’t curse out of anger often. I have noticed the same trend in my books although a little more restrained. I try to keep it to a minimum where appropriate and where it suits the character. The gun totting bad ass is more likely to drop a few f-bombs than the southern bell. And I would be disappointed if that’s not the way it was. I think when used well and suitably it should barely be noticed at all.

  3. I often think of profanity in books (particularly YA) to be a way of making it realistic…teenagers generally use profanity for every second word…I’m not a fan of it, and I don’t use it, and it does irritate me, regardless of whether it’s in a book or real life, but if the story is good enough, I ignore it.

  4. Given that writing and stories are representative of/derived from real life, and people in real life do swear, I feel it is okay.
    Also, teenagers are not the only people who swear a lot, in fact, I might never write a teenage character to swear because for the most part I feel it would add nothing real to the character.

  5. I tend to swear when I’m on the metro at 7.30am, it is boiling and people have NO manners but even then I tend to just mutter to myself about their rudeness!

    swearing in my writing?….mmm, only if it is really necessary for the character but I don’t think a book should be full of characters who all feel the need to be effing and blinding all the time. I don’t like to listen to people who can’t say a sentence without the f-word, so I don’t want to read it either. That being said, when it flows as part of the book I agree with James – you don’t even really notice.

  6. I rarely swear and never when I am writing. I was not put off by your dialogue – it certainly seems “Danielle”. As far as other blogs, there are a couple I have stopped following because the writer seems not to be able to write more than two sentences without f###. When I was in school, I was told that using too many swear words showed a lack of imagination on the part of the author.

  7. I rarely use profanity but I am comfortable with others using it, so long as it not a whole paragraph of it. :D

    I think it is considered mild with what you are doing with Danielle. ;P

  8. Now, depends on the situation. If the profanity is the focus of the line, it shows lack of character. But if the profanity is used to emphasize, then is fine. I’m not too good at explanations, but let’s say if every second word in one’s vocabulary is the F word (or any other swear word), it is not a good thing to read. But when used to emphasize a situation or emotion, is ok (in hope that the character doesn’t experience such intense emotions continuously).
    On other hand, the excess of swear words may be used to show subtly certain traits of the character, but I bet not a lot of people pay that much attention to hints and simply get offended by profanity.
    Is a tricky situation and fear not, there will always be a person to miss the point.

  9. I curse a lot in real life when I am working–it’s a bad habit, and I try to stop it, but when a piece of machinery is being obstinate it just seems to be the thing to do.

    In my writing I tend to use profanity and obscenity very sparingly. I think the impact of four letter words is lessened by repetition, and after a while they just become meaningless placeholders. It’s much more a challenge to come up with dialogue that expresses strong emotion without swearing.

  10. I don’t know if you need a warning, but you know your readers better, perhaps, so it might be good. I don’t use profanity really in real life, and so it has been a bit of a dilemma with me in writing. I occasionally use swearing in my writing, but only when I feel it’s absolutely necessary for the story (although I still don’t use the f-word). I’m not offended by profanity in writing (unless it’s extremely graphic and pervasive) but I have some faithful readers who are very conservative relatives so I sometimes worry about what they will think if I throw in the occasional bad word.

  11. I don’t really swear tons…or at all….ok, like maybe once or twice in my head. I used to write things though (coughfanfictioncough) and I always felt a bit conflicted when writing a character who normally swore often. I usually copped out and went with “He swore bitterly” or the like. :)

    I am new to your blog, but I did a quick read through of the post in question. I don’t really think a warning is needed. The swearing isn’t over the top, and it seems in character. I probably woudn’t have thought about it, if you hadn’t pointed it out.

  12. Profanity and swear words are tools, like every other word in the English language, to be used much like punctuation. If I was to write a story set in a maximum security prison, it would be peculiar not to write offensive dialogue or broach offensive topics – and I wouldn’t even need profanity to do it.

    I personally think your story ‘The Literary Girlfriend’ beautifully illustrates the concept of well-placed profanity. I read it and don’t feel as though it is gratuitous. She reminds me of Debra Morgan (from the Dexter book series) in that aspect.

    Would the profanity bother some people and not have them read your story? Probably – but then, her occupation would probably offend their sensibilities also, so they’re not in your target market anyway. It doesn’t bother me, but if it was formulaic and insensible, it would. Not because of the profanity itself, but because the author missed the point.

  13. I don’t know if you need to put up a warning before every chapter she might do more cussing in than others. Usually it seems a general Hey character may use some cursing proceed with caution should be ok. I have actually put a book down for the overuse of profanity. It’s not that I mind profanity or that it really insults me or bothers me at all, I mean they are just words. BUT when every other word is cussing it’s more distracting than anything. I can’t get into the character because I don’t want to be into the character and it makes it less enjoyable for me to read. I use as little profanity in my writing as possible. But like every situation, sometimes to make something more impactful, to make something or someone colorful, or just plain the situation calls for it I’ll use it. My last book I wrote there was a small comedic piece toward the middle where the main character accidentally drops a large object on her counterpart’s toe. Now I know of no one that wouldn’t scream and or mutter curses while hopping around and trying to relieve the pain. There are also situations where it may call for a stronger phrase than just “Darn it” or “Gosh and golly jee” being realistic with your characters tends to help your audience get into them. I have gotten through ONE traffic jam without using profanity. NOW I must add in this that my toddler was in the backseat so the words I ended up using instead would have made anyone laugh their heads off. Needless to say his favorite phrase to yell while in traffic is “Gah drive you flubber wheel” (yeah I have no idea) It was the spur of the moment thing that came to mind while trying to avoid the 3 very colorful words I wanted to say.

    • I’ve just become a big fan of the “Gah drive you flubber wheel!” Danielle might not use it in any of the following chapters of “The LIterary Girlfriend,” but I may try it the next time I’m stuck in traffic.

  14. My take on this is, if your characters swear a lot, or if a story necessitates it, don’t cop out. The swear words are just as much a part of the piece as every other word. If someone reading is offended by that, fine, but we all know them and (most of us) say them sometimes, and I’ve read parts of your Literary Girlfriend series– it’s adding to good writing. You shouldn’t need to warn people that you’re going to say words when it’s part of a story. I feel like it’s absurd that people get upset. The English language isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and hell, people aren’t either. I guess what it comes down to is this: I don’t give a shit. Keep saying shit. :)

  15. I don’t swear, personally, and I don’t use it in my blog, but I think it is perfectly ok to use it to give an extra flavor to the character. There is a difference between “She swore”, “shit”, and a ten word long exercise in profanity.

  16. Sorry I’m a little late to the party, but…
    I am totally on board with the lazy writing thing. Especially in a blog. As soon as I see an F-bomb in a blog, I’m out. It is not a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. Buy a thesaurus.

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