To swear or not to swear, that is the question. If you’ve read any of my fiction, you’ll notice that salty language sometimes invades my dialogue or prose. Based on my conservative Christian upbringing, you might find this surprising. You may wonder how I reconcile my beliefs with my use of profanity, which would make a nun blush.
Or maybe, you don’t care about that. You’d just like to know when and where it is appropriate to use profanity in your own writing. Don’t worry. We’ll get there. First, indulge me with a little story time.
The first time I swore I was over at my best friend’s house. He had a wooden fence that separated his yard from the neighbor’s yard. Some little upstart appeared at the top of the fence, yapping at us like an angry puppy. We lobbed verbal insults at one another. I may or may not have called him a “little shit” or “asshole.” I can no longer remember. These were two phrases Grandma and my uncles often tossed at their dog.
It felt great. Until that moment, I didn’t realize words could carry such emotion and release. My victory lap over this new vocabulary was short lived. Mom found out I had used forbidden words, and she washed out my mouth with soap.
The words returned when I was a freshman in high school. They reappeared after breakups and during arguments. Once, a driver cut me off in traffic, and I unleashed a one-word, heat seeking missile at the car’s tailpipe. My wife was shocked.
Here’s the thing about profanity: it’s necessary. There aren’t any useless words in our language. Linguistically speaking, words are neutral. They are neither good nor evil. Cultural beliefs create profanity and establish taboos, which is why British and American English have slightly different curse words. Americans might cringe when a beloved sitcom character says, “bitch” or “fuck,” but they wouldn’t blink at The Doctor uttering “bloody,” bollocks,” “bugger,” or “wanker.”
Words are blocks of semantic meaning that allow us to craft sentences and utter innovative in our language. As writers, words are our tools; they carry hues of meaning, shades of emotion. Arbitrarily avoiding words, profane or otherwise, is to create works of art with a limited palette.
There is also evidence that profanity provides an emotional release that no other words can provide. These words can dull our pain and help us bond with others. Children as young as two have a few curse words in their vocabulary. In fact, scientists observed that girls swore an average of 140 times to boys, who swore about 99 times. This trend reversed in adolescence when boys cussed three times more often than girls.
Profanity is a normal part of life, and it should be normal in our writing. There are at least four factors that you should consider when using it:
- Genre – There is a difference between children’s picture books and hardcore horror stories. Even though young children can and do swear, as readers we don’t expect to find profanity in this genre. On the other hand, we might be surprised by a character who faces imminent doom without letting one fly. Read often in your genre to discover its threshold for profanity.
- Authenticity – Always strive for authentic characters. If you have someone from a rough background whose emotions are razorblades, consider how their language reflects their experience. Let your characters lead when it comes to profanity. However, beware. As realistic as those characters are, you will still have readers who do not appreciate the profanity. Although these characters may swear often in real life, seeing the words on the printed page amplifies the effect. Less is more.
- Necessity – Just because your character can swear all the time, it doesn’t mean that he or she should. Writers sometimes use profanity to cover a lack of vocabulary. Using profanity may make your prose seem more sophisticated, but often, it is a missed opportunity to discover a clever turn of phrase.
- Market trends – When submitting your story to various markets, pay attention to their guidelines. Magazines and publishing houses understand their audiences and usually set the standard for what is acceptable. The YA market in particular has a wide variety of standards. For example, I once wrote a story that borrowed lyrics from Radiohead’s “Creep.” The editors of the PG-13 publication didn’t appreciate my use of the F-bomb, even though it was part of the lyrics. I had to choose between authenticity and reader expectations. This situation created an opportunity for me to find a creative compromise. Remember, words are tools. Sometimes we must alter our color palette to accommodate profanity-blindness.
If you get stuck on this issue, let me offer one last suggestion. Close the door. Open a new document. Type the forbidden words on the page until your fingers can feel emotive power of a language that gives zero fucks how we wield it.